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House committee budgets swell as GOP plans road shows

March 5, 2023 Updated Sun., March 5, 2023 at 6:55 p.m.

U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) speaks at a news conference on energy policy at the U.S. Capitol on March 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C.  (Kevin Dietsch)
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) speaks at a news conference on energy policy at the U.S. Capitol on March 8, 2022, in Washington, D.C. (Kevin Dietsch)
By Annie Karni and Catie Edmondson New York Times

WASHINGTON – When the House Ways and Means Committee traveled to Petersburg, West Virginia, last month for its inaugural field hearing on “the state of the economy in Appalachia,” it met at the headquarters of a hardwood lumber manufacturer whose CEO has donated the maximum campaign contribution allowed to a Republican member of the panel.

The logo of his company was on prominent display during the event.

When the committee descends on Yukon, Oklahoma, this week for its second field hearing, this one on “the state of the economy in the heartland,” it will convene at Express Clydesdales, a restored barn and event space owned by a major donor to the super PAC aligned with Speaker Kevin McCarthy, the Republican National Committee, Senate Republicans’ campaign committee and former President Donald Trump.

The owner, who is business magnate Robert Funk, has also given the maximum campaign donation allowable to another member of the panel, Rep. Kevin Hern, R-Okla., for the past three cycles.

Determined to take their message directly to voters at a time when they are hard-pressed to get anything concrete done on Capitol Hill, House Republicans are increasing the budgets of their congressional committees and going out on the road, planning a busy schedule of field hearings in all corners of the country aimed at promoting their agenda outside the Beltway.

The Judiciary Committee, for example, which has held one field hearing at the U.S. border with Mexico to criticize the Biden administration’s immigration policies and is planning more, requested a travel budget of $262,000 for this year. That is more than 30 times what the panel spent on travel last year. (In 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic significantly curtailed travel, the Judiciary Committee spent about $85,000 on travel costs, according to a public disclosure form, one-third of what Republicans are planning this year.)

It is part of a well-worn political strategy to reach voters where they live and generate local media attention for activity that would most likely draw little notice in Washington.

Rep. Jason Smith, R-Mo., chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said last week that he had “made it a priority” to take the committee’s work “outside the halls of Congress, away from the politically connected voices of Washington lobbyists and into the communities of the American people whose voices have for too long been ignored.”

But it also has a direct payoff for Republicans, allowing them to reward major donors with publicity and exposure for their businesses.

In West Virginia, the CEO of Allegheny Wood Products, John Crites, whose company hosted the first Ways and Means field hearing, gave the maximum contribution allowed to Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., a member of the panel, for the past two cycles.

A spokesperson for the committee declined to comment on the choice of venues. Staff aides noted that some of the witnesses who they can hear from in remote locations may not have the time or resources to travel to Washington to testify.

Republicans said they were planning to ramp up the travel throughout the next two years despite the criticism, whether or not Democrats join them, and would need substantial budgets to accomplish that.

“We’d like to do a lot more field hearings,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. “The reality is they also cost a lot more money.”

Getting out of Washington and into “real America” is part of a mandate that House Republican leaders have issued to their members, whose narrow, four-seat majority, coupled with deep party divisions, is making it difficult to pass any major legislation.

“One of the things we committed is we would bring Congress to the people,” Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., said at a news conference last week. “We’d actually have field hearings in communities across America to listen to real citizens.”

The uptick in budgets comes as Republicans are pledging not to raise the federal debt ceiling, threatening a first-ever default, unless Democrats agree to deep budget cuts and an end to what they describe as profligate bureaucratic spending.

Their plans to pour substantial money into field hearings have for the most part received little pushback from Democratic committee leaders, who hope to take back the majority in two years and are eager to codify the precedent of larger travel budgets.

“If we’re going to be able to do more field hearings, which I think are important, we are going to need more money,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who led the Energy and Commerce Committee in the last Congress and said his ability to hold such sessions was limited by a lack of funding.

But the focus on getting out of Washington also appears to be deepening partisan divisions on congressional committees, where Democrats are complaining about not being given enough notice about the travel, or rejecting field trips out of principle.

The Judiciary Committee’s hearing last month on the “Biden border crisis” in Yuma, Arizona, capped a two-day tour of the border where House Republicans accompanied law enforcement officials in an unsuccessful effort to see immigrants illegally crossing the border.

Democrats on the panel boycotted that hearing, dismissing it as a political stunt and noting that they had not been consulted about it.

“It’s a shame that not one Democratic member of Congress would join us on this trip despite having weeks of advance notice,” said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the chair.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the top Democrat on the committee, said Democrats on the panel planned to make their own trip to the border to hear from government officials and community members.

“Republicans are so desperate to change the narrative from their failing agenda that they’re gearing up to spend millions of taxpayer dollars on political stunts,” he said. “These guys are roaming around the desert at night like part-time vigilantes, looking for migrants with their flashlights and with right-wing media outlets in tow. That’s not a solution; that’s a made-for-TV stunt.”

Only one Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, attended the West Virginia hearing. “There was very little notice,” he said in an interview, explaining the absence of his Democratic colleagues.

Beyer said he worried about the cost of relying primarily on field hearings, which often require the use of chartered planes to get members on location. For the upcoming Oklahoma hearing, he said, “they’re flying most of their 25 members and at least eight Democrats – they’re flying them and feeding them. There’s no reason not do to it, but we still live in a world of scarce resources.”

Two different subcommittees of the Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled two different field hearings last month in Texas, roughly 18 hours and 600 miles apart. When inclement weather tanked the lawmakers’ commercial travel plans to get to the second hearing in Midland, they ended up chartering a plane to get them there in time.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., chair of the Natural Resources Committee, testified last week to the House Administration Committee, which oversees panels’ budgets, that he anticipated his committee would hold “10 to 15” field hearings each year. That is a significant increase from previous years.

Some panels appear to be taking the mandate to travel to greater extremes than others. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee, said panel members should prepare to get “out in the field” at “the drop of a hat” to respond to crises at veterans’ facilities across the nation. He requested a travel budget of $150,000, up from $100,000 last year.

So many panels requested more travel spending this year that it raised some eyebrows during the House Administration Committee hearing when some said they did not plan to do so. When Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chair of the Rules Committee, testified that he was not requesting a budget increase for his panel, a GOP member of the Administration Committee sounded surprised.

“You’re not having field hearings in Alaska or anything?” asked the fellow Republican, Rep. Greg Murphy of North Carolina.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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