The Cardinal Rules

Posted: Dec 25, 2003 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- As Republican Rep. Ralph Regula of Ohio stepped off the House floor Dec. 8, he should have been happy. The House had just passed an omnibus appropriations bill packed with spending earmarked for individual projects, including plenty that Regula directed to his own state. Yet, he sounded a little peeved. "People in my district don't care a whole lot about what Novak thinks about it," he told Washington Post reporter Dan Morgan.

My column that morning listed a few of the succulent pork items in the $328 billion bill funding 11 government departments for which individual appropriations bills should have been passed by Oct. 1 but were not. The failure enables the congressional appropriators to earmark special projects without hearings, debate or concurrence from the Bush Administration's approval. "I know better than some bureaucrat what's good for my district," Regula told Morgan.

That might sound arrogant, but Regula was inadvertently revealing how the system really works. In the last fiscal year, earmarks rose 12 percent to reach $22.5 billion. Regula talks about taking care of "my district" (which he does), but his influence is nationwide. He is one of the "cardinals" -- chairmen of the House Appropriations Subcommittees. If a House member wants federal funds for his district, he had better kiss a cardinal's ring. That is why federal spending control might well start with real term limits on appropriators.

I first met Ralph Regula in 1965, when he was a young, first-term member of the Ohio House of Representatives. He was a soft-spoken gentleman of moderate ideology, and that has been his image for the past three decades in Washington since his election to Congress in 1972. He has neither courted nor sought out the television talk shows and has kept a low profile. But he became one of the most effective and, lately, one of the most feared appropriators.

He became a cardinal in 1995, heading the Interior Subcommittee. After six years, bogus term limits kicked in so that in 2001, he switched to an even more elevated position. As Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee chairman, he controls more domestic spending than any other cardinal.

And does he ever control it. He personally added additional pension benefits for 2,500 retired employees (more than half of them Ohioans) of the former Republic Steel Corp. Regula and other Ohio members of Congress were given $152 million in the omnibus, much of it from Labor-HHS-Education.

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.