GUY RAZ, host: Now while voters in Tunisia are about to hand a lot of power to that new assembly, here in Washington, one of the most important congressional committees is seeing its power slip away. Not too long ago, the most exclusive club in Congress was the Appropriations Committee. To get assigned to that committee took years.
Well, Republican Jeff Flake, of Arizona, finally landed a spot on Appropriations last fall. And how did he get in?
Representative JEFF FLAKE: Partly because few other people wanted on.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLAKE: It has kind of lost its luster for most people.
RAZ: In a recent issue of The New Republic, reporter Eliza Gray said: Right now is quite possibly the least fun time to be an appropriator on the record. And why? Well, for most of the past few decades, appropriators decided how the federal budget would be spent, and it gave them a lot of power. In fact, the subcommittee chairmen were known around Capitol Hill as the cardinals - as in, the cardinals who run the Catholic Church.
But over the summer, the president and congressional Republicans took that power away from Appropriations, and appointed a so-called supercommittee to do the work instead.
Representative JIM MORAN: Well, a supercommittee is an indictment of the entire congressional process. It shows that the Congress is dysfunctional today.
RAZ: That's Virginia Democrat Jim Moran. He is a senior member on the Appropriations Committee.
MORAN: Today, what we have is a system that's been turned upside down.
RAZ: Moran remembers the days when being on the committee was a mark of serious power. Back in 1980, for example, after Mount Saint Helens erupted, Senator Warren Magnuson, the then-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was able to get a billion dollars in emergency aid for his home state of Washington. And another senator, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, wondered why he couldn't get that kind of money.
MORAN: And Senator Inouye said, Maggie, I have thousands of volcanoes.
MORAN: And why can't I get a billion dollars for each volcano? And Maggie put his hand on Dan Inouye's hand - who was young at the time - and said Danny, your time will come.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MORAN: Well, Danny's time has come. He takes very good care of Hawaii. And, you know, the system worked.
RAZ: Now, while appropriators earned a reputation for piling on the pork, Jim Moran says that's an oversimplification. He says today, major projects we take for granted could never get off the ground because the Republican leadership has banned so-called earmarks. And Moran points to a project he successfully funded - fixing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That's a major thoroughfare that connects Virginia to Maryland.
MORAN: And we pushed for three years to get that earmark in place. We did it. And now, the whole country benefits. We're proud of it. But there was no conceivable way you could have ever built the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to handle the East Coast traffic unless it had been an earmark.
RAZ: If a lot of the work of the Appropriations Committee is being done by this supercommittee, what are you guys doing on Appropriations right now - nowadays?
MORAN: No. Well, nothing of consequence.
RAZ: I understand the Appropriations Committee used to meet in this great room in the Capitol with a view of the National Mall, and that's been essentially shut down to make way for a women's bathroom.
RAZ: Is that more than just symbolic?
MORAN: Yes. My view with it.
RAZ: You're saying - it says...
MORAN: It's a diminution of the power of appropriators.
RAZ: And Jeff Flake agrees.
FLAKE: We should be doing some oversight hearings, but we're not.
RAZ: So have you had a chance to take up, you know, any new hobbies or maybe go back to old ones - stamp collecting or...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FLAKE: Oh, I'm not saying there's not things to do.
RAZ: I got you.
FLAKE: But I think we could certainly make use of our time better if we were conducting more oversight and doing more hearings.
RAZ: Flake and his fellow appropriators are more or less biding their time until November 23rd. That's when the supercommittee has to present the rest of Congress with a spending plan, a plan that is expected to lay out billions of dollars in spending cuts.
FLAKE: That's pretty sad commentary on where we've come to, you know, as a Congress in not being able to prioritize. But if that's the only way we can cut spending, that may be what we have to do.
RAZ: Congressman Jeff Flake of Arizona and earlier, Democrat Jim Moran of Virginia; both are members of the House Appropriations Committee.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.