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No earmarks, less pork barrel and one neutered committee

Republican congressman Jack Kingston is fighting for the open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia by carrying the mantle of the House Appropriations Committee.

But his message is not what it would have been years ago from a member of the once all-powerful committee that controls the purse strings for a trillion dollars in discretionary spending by the federal government, funding projects that often benefited local economies and lifted committee members to easy re-elections back home.

Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., arrives for the debate of Republican candidates for Georgia's open Senate seat at the Columbia County Exhibition Center in Grovetown, Ga., in April 2014.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call | Getty Images
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., arrives for the debate of Republican candidates for Georgia's open Senate seat at the Columbia County Exhibition Center in Grovetown, Ga., in April 2014.

"In my own Senate race, I am the only one who cut the federal budget," Kingston recently told CNBC.com, referring to his senior position on the committee and emphasizing what he cut rather than what he spent. "No one else in the race can make that claim."

There was a time when members would give up an appendage for a seat on appropriations—and then brag about it endlessly in their home districts. But then came 9/11, two expensive wars, a tea party movement revolted by federal spending, a debt-ceiling crisis, sequestration and, suddenly, Congress' marquee panel turned into persona non grata as federal spending became a lightning rod.

Indeed, since the 2010 midterms, "appropriations" has become a four-letter word in politics.


Politically toxic

Not only did it became impossible to reach the necessary compromises to pass appropriations bills, it became politically toxic for Republicans to even be associated with the process, lest they be criticized for selling out on fiscal principles.

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Kingston, a senior appropriator whose Senate bid is being endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is attempting to put a different spin on his role on the committee. And he's not alone. With the waning influence of the tea party, and since Congress passed a compromise budget bill at the end of last year that returned the legislative process back to its regular order, there are signs that appropriations is getting its groove back.

A dozen experts interviewed for this story—including top current and former committee members and staffers—expressed a growing confidence that the committee is on a path to reclaiming its former power.

But whether it can ever return to its once-hallowed status is an open questionowing, in part, to members' ability to explain how important the committee is in running the country and providing oversight of the executive.

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"I don't think people understand how we are responsible managers of federal income dollars," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who chairs the House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. "We need to do a better job of communicating that and we are doing a better job of that and leadership is letting us."

Will earmark ban go away?

Certainly, this case has become more difficult to make since Congress passed an earmark ban in 2011, which no longer allowed members to allocate federal funds for specific pet projects in the appropriations bills themselves.

This followed several high-profile instances of gluttonous pork-barrel spending projects—most infamously, the "Bridge to Nowhere" in Alaska, where members of the state's congressional delegation designated $400 million in an earmark to create a bridge to a remote island that inhabited only 50 people.

Although the earmark ban was crusaded for by Republicans, a number of Democrats, including President Barack Obama, supported the ban, too. But recently, the earmark defenders are coming to the fore, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vigorously pleading their case this week.

Even some Senate Republicans have begun publicly questioning whether the new way of doing things—which leaves far greater spending authority in the hands of the executive branchis worse than the old.

Not just for earmarks

The consequence of this is that the once-powerful appropriations committee is in the spotlight, with a chance to reintroduce itself as something more than just a committee that used to write earmarks. Even in the high times of the 1990s, earmark-spending accounted for less than 1 percent of the federal dollars the committee was tasked with allocating.

How committee members fare in re-election bids in the 2014 midterms could very well serve as a proxy for the committee's return to influence and power.

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"I do think there is, even in the House, some misunderstanding of what the appropriations committee does," said Kingston. "Essentially, we can stick our nose into anything we want."

Kingston contends that the value of his time on appropriations is what it's taught him about how to trim Washington excess.

"I have cut a budget, I have been in conference committees. I have negotiated toe-to-toe with members of the Senate," he said.

—By Daniel Libit, special to CNBC.com.

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