McCollum, Ryan possible successors for defense spending gavel

CQ | Nov. 6, 2019 | By Jennifer Shutt

The House Appropriations Committee will lose another senior Democrat in the 117th Congress, as Defense Subcommittee Chairman Peter J. Visclosky joins Nita M. Lowey, the full committee chairwoman, and Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee Chairman José E. Serrano in retirement.

Visclosky’s departure opens up one of the most coveted positions on Capitol Hill, controlling nearly $700 billion in annual federal spending and helping to shape America’s global military posture.

House Democrats pick their Appropriations “cardinals” by seniority on each of the 12 subcommittees, which would put Betty McCollum of Minnesota in line to succeed Visclosky. However, McCollum is currently Interior-Environment Subcommittee chairwoman, so she’d have to switch.

Visclosky  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A McCollum spokeswoman said she was on a trip to Malawi with the U.S. Forest Service and couldn’t comment on committee gavel possibilities. McCollum did release a statement praising Visclosky’s “outstanding leadership” as Defense appropriations chairman.

McCollum is also mulling a bid to succeed Lowey, a New Yorker like Serrano, at the helm of the full committee. In a statement last week, McCollum told CQ Roll Call that she will decide whether to enter the race to succeed Lowey at the right time. “But right now is too early to make that decision,” she said.

“We need to be thinking about modernizing the committee. As Democrats, we need to collaborate more in a way that maximizes the talents of all our members to drive our caucus agenda and priorities,” McCollum said in a statement. “At the same time, we need to retain the tradition of bipartisanship that keeps the committee functioning effectively.”

McCollum could conceivably keep a subcommittee chairmanship if she were to become full committee chairwoman, as House Appropriations Democrats have a long tradition in that regard.

Lowey kept the State-Foreign Operations gavel when she ascended to the full committee chairmanship, as well as during her tenure as ranking member. Before her ex-Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., maintained his position as top Democrat on Defense, and before that, former Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., for years was top Democrat on both the full committee and the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee.

But McCollum would have to leapfrog several more senior full committee members to become full committee chairwoman. She ranks 7th in seniority among Democrats returning in the next Congress, with the top two — Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut — having already announced their intent to compete for the gavel.

If McCollum doesn’t take over Defense, next in line would be Tim Ryan of Ohio, fresh off his unsuccessful bid for his party’s presidential nomination. Ryan is currently Legislative Branch subcommittee chairman, which controls about $5 billion in spending and has no footprint beyond the Capitol complex, so Defense would be a big step up for him.

Ryan has also challenged Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for her position as the top House Democrat in the past.

‘Tough choices, smart cuts’

When she joined the Defense subcommittee in 2013, her first comment was about keeping military budgets in check: “We need a strong military, but we can’t afford to keep borrowing from China to pay for the Pentagon’s overspending,” she said at the time. “Now is the time for tough choices, smart cuts, and real deficit reduction includes cuts to defense spending.”

Of course, that was in the era of automatic spending cuts known as sequesters, and tight budget caps that have since been lifted. The bill that passed the House later in 2013 contained $591.3 billion. McCollum earlier this year praised the $690.2 billion fiscal 2020 measure (HR 2740), specifically citing money for health care and medical research, environmental restoration, a 3.1 percent pay raise for troops and funds for sexual assault prevention and response programs.

When the House passed the fiscal 2020 Defense bill this summer, Ryan praised funding for a range of programs, including procurement of four C-130J transport aircraft, housed at Youngstown Air Reserve Station; research and development for 3D printing equipment made in Youngstown; R&D funding for aircraft electronics that could benefit the University of Akron and more.

According to the Pentagon, the department spent $7 billion on defense contracts and employee payrolls in Ohio in fiscal 2017, more than Minnesota’s $4.6 billion. But Minnesota ranked slightly higher in defense spending as a share of its economy and per capita.

‘Blow to the defense industry’

Visclosky, an 18-term Indiana Democrat, in his retirement announcement Wednesday appeared frustrated with the polarization and gridlock that have become increasingly common since he was first elected in 1984, encouraging the next batch of lawmakers to “be for something and not against someone.”

Michael Herson, a longtime defense lobbyist who is president and CEO of American Defense International, Inc., said Visclosky’s retirement came as a surprise.

“His retirement coupled with [House Armed Service Committee ranking member] Mac Thornberry’s retirement is a blow to the defense industry, and signals some changes coming,” Herson said, referring to the Texas Republican’s September announcement that he won’t seek reelection. “It’s rare that we have this much change in one year, including the chairman of the full appropriations committee.”

The turnover creates uncertainty, as defense contractors don’t know who will fill those leadership roles on Armed Services and Appropriations, and what their priorities will be, he said.

Visclosky’s departure “is a big loss for the defense community,” added Herson, noting that Visclosky had served on the Defense appropriations subcommittee for a long time before becoming ranking member and chairman.

“He knows the programs, and knows the companies,” Herson said.

Andrew Clevenger contributed to this report.

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