U.S. Rep. Bill Owens has only been in Congress for three years, but he recently accomplished something his predecessor, eight-term Congressman John McHugh, didn't: He was appointed to the House's influential Appropriations Committee.
The Appropriations Committee oversees virtually all federal spending and is considered to be one of the House's most powerful committees, according to SUNY Potsdam Professor Jack McGuire, who told the Enterprise this week that Owens will now be heavily courted by lobbyists from all corners of the country.
Owens represents New York's 21st Congressional District, a vast region which includes all of Clinton, Franklin, Essex, St. Lawrence, Jefferson, Lewis, Hamilton, Fulton, Warren and Washington counties, and parts of Herkimer and Saratoga counties.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens is given a tour of a North Country dairy farm. The Democrat from Plattsburgh, who represents all of northern New York in the House of Representatives, has to give up his seat on the House Agriculture Committee to take one on the Appropriations Committee.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens learns about Pioneer Windows at the company's manufacturing plant in Johnstown. Owens has to give up his seat on the House Small Business Committee to take one on the Appropriations Committee.
U.S. Rep. Bill Owens speaks at the Fort Drum Army base near Watertown. Owens has to give up his seat on the House Armed Services Committee to take one on the Appropriations Committee.
Owens said in a phone interview that he sought out membership on the Appropriations Committee but didn't expect to get appointed. To be considered, Owens wrote a letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, who co-chairs the House Democratic Steering Committee, in early December. Several weeks later, DeLauro contacted Owens to tell him the appointment had been approved, and it was formalized on Jan. 4.
"In truth, I was a bit surprised when it happened," Owens said. "Obviously, I was very happy, but surprised nonetheless that it happened this early on in my career in Congress."
Owens said he will now have more influence on federal spending, although he's still in the minority party.
"I think that for a number of reasons, that's very helpful to the district," he said. "It allows you to have input on virtually every issue that is going on in the government today. It continues my ability to help on Armed Services in Fort Drum. It continues my ability to help with (agricultural) issues, with the border, with schools and education - virtually everything that impacts people in the district comes before this committee.
"So in terms of getting a broader based view, and having a broader impact, I thought this was very important that I at least seek this opportunity."
McGuire noted that House Democratic leadership would have flagged Owens' name prior to him seeking the committee assignment. He said he thinks Owens got the assignment because his district is leaning Democrat more so than in the past. In the 2012 election, incumbent Barack Obama fared far better than challenger Mitt Romney in most of the North Country, and Owens has won three consecutive elections despite fierce conservative opposition.
McGuire said Democrats want to hold onto the seat.
"So how can you hold onto that seat? Put somebody on that committee who might be able to serve the district well," he said. "And so I think that's part of the reason Bill Owens is now serving on that committee."
McGuire teaches political science at Potsdam State. He said Owens' appointment to the committee is a big feather in his hat, even though he's not in the majority party.
In 1865, the House decided to take appropriating and banking and currency duties away from the Ways and Means Committee and hand them over to a pair of new committees: Appropriations, and Banking and Currency. According to the Appropriations Committee website, all general appropriations bills were handled by Ways and Means.
"The new Committee on Appropriations - six Republicans and three Democrats - was appointed on December 11, 1865, in the 1st session of the 39th Congress, and first reported the general appropriations bills for the fiscal year 1867," the website reads. "By 1920, the number of members had grown to 21. It was changed that year to 35 and gradually increased to 50 by 1951. Until recently, the Committee numbered 66 members, but has since reduced its ranks to 50 members."
McGuire explained that the committee mainly deals with 14 appropriations bills that are responsible for funding the federal government.
"So in terms of the entirety of all the funding for all of the different programs, departments, bureaus, agencies - it goes through the Appropriations Committee," McGuire said. "And so all of the trillions of dollars that fund the federal government are overseen, in at least one aspect, by the Appropriations Committee, which Bill Owens sits on."
McGuire said the committee sets funding levels for federal child care and educational programs, the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and more. Legislation considered by the House doesn't live or die based on action taken by the Appropriations Committee, but the amount of funding attached to most bills is at stake.
McGuire said Owens should expect more attention from lobbyists because he will be one of a select few who decide how much money will be funneled to specific bills.
The Appropriations Committee is an exclusive one, meaning Owens had to relinquish his membership on the Armed Services, Small Business and Agriculture committees. McGuire said because Appropriations is so powerful, it wouldn't be fair for its members to sit on other committees at the same time.
"It's a way in which to mollify, or to keep members in the House happy," he said. "And to not concentrate power too much in the hands of the few."
McGuire said that traditionally, members of the Appropriation Committee are known for "bringing home the bacon." In other words, its members are able to negotiate funding items that benefit their home districts.
"You can rest assured that there's going to be a lot of the proverbial ornaments hanging off of the Christmas tree," McGuire said. "In all likelihood, he'll serve on different conference committees that are dealing with appropriations bills, and often times in the conferences, that's where you're going to see different little riders, if you want to call them riders, or little bits of pork that are put into the bills. I would imagine that some of that will come back to his district."
But Congress renewed a ban on earmarks this past fall, and Owens said 99 percent of the pork that used to be attached to appropriations bills has gone away. He said his goal is to make sure his district receives a proportional amount of federal funding, especially as Congress prepares to make spending cuts.
"I want to make sure that we, in the 21st, are getting the things that we need and a fair shake in this appropriations process," Owens said.
After he was sworn in to his third term earlier this month, Owens said he wants Congress to get more specific about where the federal government needs to cut spending. He said his new committee appointment will give him a louder voice as those talks begin to take shape.
"You can reduce, if you will, the appropriation to a particular area, and therefore effect a cut," Owens said. "And I'm hoping I can bring some common sense to the process."
McGuire repeatedly emphasized the magnitude of Owens' latest appointment, but Owens himself seemed to downplay it.
"Clearly, I'm honored that the leadership in my caucus felt that I was a person who could do this job," he said. "And I think it reflects on my attitude, generally, that I'm always trying to search out the facts. I don't usually overreact to things; sometimes I'm criticized for that. But I'm really trying to understand what's the issue, what are the facts and how do we make a good decision."
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