Can Barbara Mikulski fix the appropriations process?

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Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski has brought energy and fresh thinking to the Appropriations Committee. Photo: AP Images.

As a veteran senator, Barbara Mikulski frequently visits the many federal offices across her state to check on their needs and possible problems that she can help resolve.

During a February visit to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, for example, the Maryland Democrat toured a kidney cancer research lab and discussed how medical providers and patients will benefit from the recent congressional spending deal that she was instrumental in crafting. Not incidentally, she reminded her audience that the bill provided them with a modest pay hike and provided two years of relative certainty for agency funding.

Her advocacy for federal employees and contractors is not confined to agency big shots. Mikulski also makes a practice of reminding rank-and-file workers that she is their senator, too, and eager to provide assistance.

At age 77 and as one of the most senior Senate Democrats, Mikulski today is in an even stronger position to deliver on her promises. As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, she has brought energy and fresh thinking to the panel, whose deliberations had grown musty and often irrelevant. Her first year leading the committee has increased both its output and consensus-building.

"Sen. Mikulski had a lot to do with congressional leaders agreeing to reach a budget deal," said Scott Lilly, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress think tank and former Democratic staff director of the House Appropriations Committee. "She worked very hard with [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid, other Senate Democrats and all the members of her committee to make the case that this should be done. That's when the logjam broke. She was very hands-on and on top of what had to happen to move all of the committee's bills."

With her House counterpart Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), Mikulski achieved a labor-intensive and long overdue victory in January when Congress approved an omnibus spending bill for the fiscal year that started last October. It was the first time since 2009 that Congress completed appropriations bills that went beyond the status-quo framework of a continuing resolution. This year, Mikulski wants to build on that, with a return to productive legislating by the appropriators.

"Chairman Rogers and I work well together because we have the same goals," she told FCW. "We both want to return to regular order and an appropriations process that keeps the government working for the American people."

Now that she has gained the attention of other key players on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington, the diminutive Mikulski offers a complex profile. Some long-standing basics remain clear:

  • She continues to play to the caricature of "Barb from Baltimore." A former social worker and community activist who grew up in blue-collar east Baltimore, she returns home almost every night -- even when the Senate is in session. In a concession to her hectic pace, she often has a driver so she can review her workload and make phone calls.
  • She remains a liberal stalwart, who offers reliable support and rhetoric for the customary array of domestic policy causes.
  • She proudly holds the record as the longest-serving woman in congressional history -- now in her 38th year, including 10 in the House -- and has become a proud mentor and confidant to many newcomers. The number of Senate women has grown from two when she took office to the current 20.

Some of her actions don't easily fit the stereotype, however, especially since she took over as Appropriations chairwoman in January 2013. She and Rogers developed a close working relationship. When the House passed the recent spending bill, he praised her "open-minded approach to negotiations."

"I don't know any appropriations bill that has gone through as many reasonable tests and, I think, wise decision processes as went into this bill," Rogers added.

Mikulski also has been reaching out to Senate Republicans, both on the Appropriations Committee and beyond. In March, she locked arms with Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) on behalf of a bill to update child-care services, which passed the Senate 96-2. Burr, who has worked closely with Mikulski on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said their cooperation is "how the Senate should run, with mutual respect and productive conversation."

After the spending bill, "passage of the child-care bill is her second home run this year," said Mikulski spokesman Vincent Morris. "There have been two big bipartisan votes in the Senate this year: omnibus and child care. And she delivered both." Those two measures were approved at a time when many critics, including some of Mikulski's colleagues, contend that Congress has become dysfunctional.

Most intriguingly perhaps, she has distanced herself from President Barack Obama. When he filed his fiscal 2015 budget, Mikulski responded that same day with a definitive rejection of his appeal for additional spending coupled with a tax hike. "We have a budget agreement for fiscal year 2015, and the Senate Appropriations Committee will adhere to the spending caps in that deal," Mikulski said at the time. That statement honored her bipartisan agreement with Rogers and left no doubt that the president's plan was dead on arrival.

"Although I agree with many of the concepts in the president's budget proposal, we intend to stick with the spending levels spelled out by the bipartisan budget deal approved last December," she said later.

Mikulski's reaction showed her "responsibility to the institution," Lilly said. "People who stick to ideological purity make for ineffective chairmen. She recognizes that she is not a one-woman band…. The president's budget is not closely connected to what will happen in Congress this year on spending." And with Republicans controlling the House, Lilly said, "I don't think that the White House expected that Congress would respond."

Mikulski is especially focused on restoring the workmanship and credibility of her committee, on which she has served throughout her Senate career. Not coincidentally, her enhanced leadership role and her embrace of the "regular order" for appropriations serve the interests of a key bloc of her Maryland constituents.

Several vast federal facilities operate across Mikulski's home state. In addition to NIH, they include the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, Census Bureau in Suitland, National Security Agency at Fort Meade and various other military bases. Protecting home-state interests -- with sometimes questionable spending on projects from West Virginia to Alaska and Hawaii -- is a cherished tradition for senior Appropriations Committee members on both sides of the aisle.

Her advocacy for these home-state agencies often is more than a friendly pat on the back. In particular, Mikulski has frequently defended the beleaguered officials and workers at NSA from what she has termed the "demonization" of their top-secret operations by many members of Congress -- including several Senate Democrats. And she has a reputation for occasionally showing a harder edge in dealing with such critics. Even with her full schedule at Appropriations, she makes a point of attending most meetings of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where she is a senior member.

Nor has she been shy about seeking to expand the federal presence in Maryland. Working with Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley, she has urged relocation to nearby Prince George's County of the headquarters of the FBI, whose officials have said their downtown Washington facility has become outdated. Although that decision technically would be made by the General Services Administration, the firm voice of the Senate Appropriations chairwoman would be hard to ignore.

Mikulski has said that Majority Leader Reid supports her plan to move the 12 annual appropriations bills to the Senate floor this year. But that won't be easy, especially in an election year when partisan control of the Senate is at stake. As chairs of the subcommittees that handle the Commerce, Justice and Science bill, Mikulski and her House counterpart, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), last year failed to get floor debate on the bill in either chamber.

Party leaders concluded at the time that they faced too many hot-button issues that might bog down that bill, ranging from guns and immigration to terrorist detainees and funding for NASA (also based in Maryland).

Even with its many challenges, the Appropriations Committee has changed significantly since 1987, when Mikulski became its only woman member and described the panel as a "fraternity." Now it includes five Democratic and two Republican women, including several who hold other top Senate committee posts. Notably, Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) worked closely with Mikulski on setting the budget framework for the subsequent spending deal.

With her committee's authority as keeper of the nation's purse strings for discretionary federal spending, Mikulski faces the continuing challenge of cutting through the Senate's proclivity to delay and deadlock.

"We got the child care bill done by focusing on where we can find common ground, where we can find that sensible center and how can we move things forward on a bipartisan basis," she told FCW. "I look forward to producing appropriations bills in the same spirit."


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