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Departing Senate budget chiefs leave a legacy of bipartisanship in a fraught era

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., worked together as the chairperson and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee respectively on getting the spending bill through Congress. Both men are retiring from Congress.
Tom Williams
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CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., worked together as the chairperson and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee respectively on getting the spending bill through Congress. Both men are retiring from Congress.

Just before leaving town for the year, the Senate of the 117th Congress stood and applauded the work and careers of two colleagues who were about to retire, Sens. Pat Leahy of Vermont and Richard Shelby of Alabama.

The gesture was a salute to the men as senators and as colleagues, to be sure. But there was an extra order of gratitude. Because in the days just before Christmas, as their parties' leaders on the Appropriations Committee, Leahy and Shelby had hammered out a spending bill that will fund the government through September.

That meant the Senate and House could go home feeling they had done the basic fiscal housekeeping that is their job. And if you think that happens every year, you have not been watching.

Over their combined 92 years on Capitol Hill, Leahy and Shelby were known for working quietly and relentlessly for goals they cared about and could mobilize broad support for. For many who knew them, respect gave way to genuine fondness.

So, the standing ovation was for them and for their work. But in a sense it was also celebrating an idea – one more often praised than practiced – the fundamental idea of Congress itself.

But first a word about the ultimate Leahy-Shelby co-production, the omnibus that wrapped the 117th. The 2023 appropriations "omnibus" President Biden signed into law on Dec. 29 splits spending increases roughly equally between defense and non-defense spending. That appalled many of Leahy's Democrats, but it had been the price of a deal for many months and he knew it.

The arrangement also continued countless programs Shelby's Republicans regard as unnecessary and wasteful. Shelby, a longtime advocate of a balanced budget amendment and other means of drastically reducing spending, knew he would lose most of his party in his chamber. He also knew he could get enough of his party on board to ratify his own judgment on what mattered most.

Hill veterans know how much calculation, negotiation and horse-trading goes into any spending package. This "omnibus" measure, worth $1.7 trillion, subsumed a year's work by a dozen subcommittees and balanced the competing interests of factions to achieve near-perfect support from Democrats in both chambers and still get enough Republican votes to clear the Senate.

Even casual news consumers know Congress now routinely lives from one short- term "stop-gap" measure to the next. In effect, that means Congress is abdicating its basic duty not only to fund the government but to update the allocations and other directions that go with the money. Punting the big dollar questions again and again undermines the purpose of the appropriating committees.

That is why the leaders and members of those committees in both chambers are known for being more bipartisan and accommodating, knowing they need to be if they are to perform their basic function.

These two men came to Congress, not just initially but every day thereafter, representing stark differences of origin, outlook and ideology. But they managed to build a relationship that was personal as well as professional – human as well as political.

Strong for the folks back home

The careers of both men coincided with big changes in politics of their home states and regions. Leahy was the first Democrat ever elected to the Senate from Vermont – and still is (as Bernie Sanders remains officially an independent). Leahy was a shock to the "rock-ribbed Republican" image of rural New England when he narrowly won his first term in 1974. It was the Watergate year, Democrats were winning on Republican ground nearly everywhere.

When first elected, Leahy was just 34 and a man of his times, opposed to the Vietnam war and a fan of the Grateful Dead. But he stood apart from many of the other "Watergate babies" in Congress. Among other things, his personal popularity had been rooted in his reputation as a courtroom prosecutor. His personal touch with constituents helped him survive the 1980 purge of liberal Senate Democrats and he has had only easy re-elections since, elevating him to the most senior status in the Senate and making him its president pro tempore.

While Leahy was a champion for Vermont and its farmers and industries as chairman of the Agriculture Committee, he became more widely known for his work on Judiciary as an advocate of constitutional rights and human relief funds, especially after the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Shelby also made his reputation as a prosecutor before entering the legislature, where he sometimes crossed swords with the state's legendary segregationist Gov. George Wallace. He made it to Congress at the midpoint of Jimmy Carter's single term as president. But in the South of that time, it was no surprise to anyone that Shelby, Carter and Wallace could all be Democrats. He arrived in the same class of new House members Newt Gingrich of Georgia and Dick Cheney of Wyoming.

Shelby's career has featured remarkable success at expanding Alabama's economy beyond its traditional farm products and Birmingham heavy industry. He made Huntsville a technology center and was willing to bend or break Senate norms to do it. In 2013 he placed what amounted to a blanket "hold" on all pending nominations made by President Obama, in effect threatening a filibuster against every one of them. That led to Democrats changing the Senate rules exempting such appointments from filibusters, an exemption Republicans would later extend to Supreme Court nominations as well.

Something of the spirit of the framers

Leahy and Shelby took a more cooperative approach to life together on Appropriations. They knew the key was to listen to everyone and talk to each other. The knew the difference between a whole and the sum of its parts. And they trusted each other.

To some degree, that was the idea of Congress in the first place, before the vast expansion of the nation's territory, population, wealth and global power. Even before its original revolution against British rule.

The original Congress inherited its name from the Continental Congress, a pre-revolutionary calling together of delegates from the several colonies in the 1770s. The idea was to meet, to share a sense of outrage but weigh the consequences of resistance.

Something of that survives when Congress manages to work in our time. It can do so best when members as different as Leahy and Shelby share a commitment to finding power and meaning in the workings of an institution, and not from recognition in the media.

Call it a professional attitude, or perhaps a personal work ethic. But either way it has much to recommend it. Although it is risky to speculate what the founders would make of any issue or topic today, we can imagine they would not be happy with members who talk to cameras and microphones more than they talk to each other.

That was not Leahy and Shelby. They were not high on the list of social media users in the Senate.

There will be those who say that this approach to the job is passing along with the "old bulls." But the end of an era need not mean the end of an ethos.

Just because the best known of the younger members of Congress are those at the polarized extremes of the parties does not mean the center has been hollowed out, especially not in the Senate.

We need look no further than two women who are expected to step into the roles of Leahy and Shelby. They are Patty Murray of Washington and Susan Collins of Maine, representing the far northwestern and northeastern corners of the Lower 48 and personifying the traditional relationships their states and home industries have had with the federal government.

Murray, a Democrat derided as "a mom in tennis shoes" when she came to lobby the Senate a generation ago, turned that phrase into a badge of honor and a victorious campaign slogan in 1992. She established her bona fides with many Congress watchers when she brokered a major spending arrangement with House Republican Paul Ryan in 2013. She has now won her sixth term and will succeed Leahy as chair of Appropriations and as Senate President Pro Tem.

Collins was elected to her fifth term as a Republican in 2020, surviving a furious effort by Democrats to unseat her. She is the first woman to lead the GOP on Appropriations.

Murray and Collins will be the first two women to lead the parties on Senate Appropriations, and they will be dealing with the two women who had already established that "first" in the House. In that chamber, however, Democrat Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut will become the ranking member and hand the chair's gavel to Republican Kay Granger of Texas.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.