WASHINGTON — In a decision that could pay substantial dividends for California, House Republican leaders tapped Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Redlands) on Wednesday as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
In that post, Lewis will supervise the drafting of the federal government's major spending bills. That should give his solidly Democratic home state new clout -- and an inside track on federal largess -- in a capital controlled by Republicans.
"This is fabulous," said Lewis, a 26-year House veteran, adding that he felt a sense of great responsibility to set Congress on a course of fiscal restraint.
Lewis won the backing of GOP leaders over two rivals, including a more senior colleague, on the strength of his pledge to bring new spending discipline to the panel and his years of raising campaign funds to build the House Republican majority, according to his supporters.
The leadership panel's recommendation is expected to be approved by the Republican rank and file today.
Rep. John T. Doolittle (R-Rocklin), the GOP conference secretary, said Lewis had promised "revolutionary change" to the appropriations process. But Doolittle, indicating that party loyalty also was a key consideration, added: "He's a team player."
Lewis, 70, will take over the committee at a difficult time: He must balance President Bush's goal of halving the deficit -- forecast at $348 billion for the current fiscal year -- by 2009 while finding money to pay for military operations in Iraq, expand domestic security programs and fund pet programs and projects pushed both by his colleagues and the White House. The panel oversees about $900 billion in spending.
"Today is a happy day for Jerry Lewis, but it may be downhill from here," said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a budget watchdog group. "This is not going to be an easy Congress in which to be Appropriations chairman. Nothing stimulates more family feuds than a competition over limited resources, and that is exactly the situation he faces."
Even before he takes the gavel, the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense has begun turning up the heat on Lewis to "stand up to his buddies ... and cut out frivolous and wasteful spending."
Citizens Against Government Waste, another watchdog group, called on Lewis to show his commitment to fiscal discipline from the start, as onetime Appropriations Committee Chairman Bob Livingston of Louisiana did when he brought an ax to his first committee meeting.
"Rep. Lewis may have thought that raising hordes of campaign cash was the hard work, but now the real work begins," said Steve Ellis, vice president for programs for Taxpayers for Common Sense.
"Good luck, Chairman Lewis, and don't let us down," he added.
Lewis described himself as up to the challenge.
"We have a historic opportunity and a unique responsibility to reform the appropriations process and change the culture of the committee," he said. He pledged to bring forward all of the spending bills "on time and under budget," but did not discuss specific plans for cuts.
Among his first responsibilities will be to draft a bill, expected to contain far more than the $350 million pledged so far, to aid victims of the tsunami in southern Asia and another, expected to be $80 billion or more, to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Lewis will be the sixth Californian to chair a House committee, giving unusual influence in the GOP-controlled chamber to a state that has not voted for a Republican for president since George H.W. Bush in 1988. The other Californians are Republican Reps. Bill Thomas of Bakersfield, Ways and Means; Duncan Hunter of El Cajon, Armed Services; David Dreier of San Dimas, Rules; Christopher Cox of Newport Beach, Homeland Security; and Richard W. Pombo of Tracy, Resources.
"It's a great boost for California," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles).
But Lewis acknowledged that he faced competing demands -- even on whether California should receive more federal money. Some of his colleagues, he noted, use the expression "ABC" (Anybody But California), believing the state already receives more than its fair share.
On the other hand, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has complained that the state receives only 77 cents back for every dollar it sends to Washington, has said that he wants to be known as the "Collectinator."
Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research, said Lewis would be well-positioned to monitor whether the federal budget treats California fairly in areas such as science and space research, grant formulas and reimbursement for state immigration costs.
"Opportunistic legislators from other states will be less likely to come after California resources, with the state leading so many top House committees," Ransdell said.
"I'm not going to suggest we're going to get a surge of money," Lewis said in an interview. But he added that he expected to have more say over how money was divvied up.