Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., yesterday decided to forgo a widely anticipated ascent to the chair of the Appropriations Committee, the Senate’s largest and most powerful committee, in a surprise move that left political pundits puzzled.
After the death on Monday of Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, Senate Appropriations chair and senior most member of the Senate, pundits and media speculated that Leahy would take the position, and leave his current Judiciary chairmanship, which he’s held since 2007. As the most senior member of the Senate, Leahy took Inouye’s place as president pro tempore of the body on Monday.
But Leahy decided against the move, as did next most senior Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, leaving Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., to become the first female Appropriations chair.
“Chairing the Judiciary Committee and maintaining my seniority on the Appropriations Committee will allow me to protect both the Constitution and Vermont,” said Leahy on Wednesday in a statement.
David Carle, Leahy’s spokesman, said the senator wanted to stay with the Senate’s “busiest committee” and continue to oversee its broad portfolio of issues — Supreme Court nominations, immigration reform, gun control legislation and other constitutional issues.
“It’s the committee where the most difficult issues to come before the Senate tend to go,” Carle said. “He welcomes that.”
Carle added that while it was a difficult decision for the senator, Leahy hasn’t lost any advantages for his constituents. As the most senior member of Appropriations, Leahy will be able to secure enough federal funding for the state, he said.
But Garrison Nelson, a UVM political science professor and author of seven books on congressional committees, said he was surprised by Leahy’s decision.
“It is the largest committee and the most powerful committee in the Senate with an average 30 members, or 30 percent of the Senate, consequently you get to do a lot of favors for people, make a lot of friends,” Nelson said.
But the position’s appeal has diminished in recent years, Nelson said, as closer scrutiny of congressional earmarks came into play after excesses by two former Appropriations chairs who funneled disproportionate funds to their states.
He added that Leahy’s role in managing the Senate nomination of Supreme Court justices was likely a key reason for him to stay.
“Supreme Court appointments are the longest lasting legacy of any Senate Judiciary chair,” said Nelson, who underlined Leahy’s success in navigating contentious nominations for Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
With four justices aged over 70, he added, it’s likely that President Barack Obama could appoint one or two more justices in his term, with Leahy in an “ideal position” to influence that process.
Both Nelson and Eric Davis, a retired Middlebury College political scientist, said that immigration reform, gun control and Supreme Court nominations are upcoming Judiciary topics that likely tempted Leahy to stick to his Judiciary position.
Davis also said that both Leahy and Harkin’s decisions to decline the Appropriations chair could be due partly to the gloomy fiscal outlook of coming years.
“Looking at what the federal budget is likely to be like in the next four years, the Appropriations Committee, much of its work is managing the budget’s decline over the next four years,” said Davis. “I’m not sure that either Leahy or Harkin thought that would be as enjoyable as working on substantive issues.”
Neither Davis nor Nelson thought Vermont would lose out on federal funding because of Leahy’s reluctance to lead Appropriations.
Davis said Leahy retains significant influence as No. 2 on Appropriations where he could best use his power to write federal funding formulas to Vermont’s advantage, by guaranteeing small states a generous minimum.
“Barbara Mikulski is a good friend of Sen. Leahy, and Vermont will not be deprived with a Mikulski chairmanship,” Nelson said.