Robert Novak

Regula also has issued a behind-the-scenes edict. Any House member who votes against any appropriations bill will not get a penny of earmarked pork. Rep. Nita Lowey, a highly partisan Democrat from New York, tested Regula -- and found that the cardinal rules. Lowey voted against the bill and discovered pork for her suburban Westchester County district was stripped from the bill.

This is a classic Hobson's Choice: Take what is offered by the House Appropriations Committee, or get nothing. That is why 58 Democrats voted for the omnibus bill that could not have been passed by Republican votes alone, because of 38 mostly conservative GOP defections.

The House Republican Conference recently empowered its steering committee to veto appropriations subcommittee chairmen, supposedly to make sure liberals do not sneak in. That was really aimed at Regula, whose environmentalist tendencies have annoyed conservatives.

However, Regula always votes with the Bush Administration on key issues, and nobody thinks he and other cardinals will be removed. Indeed, this cardinal soon will be "pope": Appropriations Committee chairman in 2005. Nor is the House Republican leadership unhappy with the current regimen, as witness Majority Leader Tom Delay: "I'm not ashamed there are earmarks in this bill."

DeLay himself is a veteran appropriator, unlikely to respond positively to a letter being sent to the Congressional Republican leadership by Americans for Tax Reform and Citizens Against Government Waste. It urges a six-year term limit on all members of the appropriations committees, smashing the college of cardinals with a single blow. That would be feasible, however, only if the Republicans in control of Congress really wanted to get rid of pork.

There is an opportunity coming up to do the right thing, with action on the omnibus bill by the Senate still pending when it reconvenes Jan. 20. Nobody is optimistic.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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