WASHINGTON – Voters will have the opportunity to go to the polls next Tuesday and decide who will be the next congressman for Alabama’s 1st congressional district — a seat that has been vacant for 137 days since Jo Bonner’s abrupt departure to take a job with the University of Alabama system.
Barring a major upset, it’s expected Bradley Byrne will defeat Burton LeFlore in a low-turnout election. Regardless of the outcome, however, neither Byrne nor LeFlore will be the most important member of Congress to Alabama’s first congressional district, at least not for two or three more election cycles.
The winner of next week’s contest will rank 535th among the 535 members of the U.S. Congress, given the timing of the election and the swearing-in, which will come just in time for the second session of the 113th Congress.
That’s going to be less than ideal, especially as the knives are out to cut Mobile-based Austal USA’s portion of the Littoral Combat Ship program. Last week, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, was named to the House Appropriations Committee to fill one of the vacancies left by the resignations of Bonner and Rep. Rodney Alexander, R-Louisiana, and the death of Rep. Bill Young, R-Florida.
“I am honored to accept a position on the House Committee on Appropriations, and I appreciate the confidence my colleagues have placed in me by selecting me to serve in this capacity,” Roby said in a statement circulated by her office. “Appropriations has oversight on the whole range of government spending. This new role provides a unique opportunity to push for the kind of conservative spending priorities that will put us on a sustainable financial path for future generations.”
And if those “conservative spending priorities” happened to involve Alabama’s interests, then all the better, right?
It’s more than naïve to believe jockeying for a spot on the House Appropriations Committee is motivated by a need to achieve an ideological end.
Back in 2008, Bonner was selected to serve on that committee, and it came with controversy. Long before the Tea Party came to be the influential force it was in the 2010 midterms, the conservative wing of the Republican Party lobbied hard for then-Arizona Rep. Jeff Flake, now the junior senator of Arizona, to hold a spot on that committee. Flake had established a reputation for being a staunch opponent of earmark spending, which probably diminished his chances at the time of being tasked as a congressional appropriator.
The GOP leadership, in the minority at the time, took some heat for the selection of Bonner, even drawing the ire of Washington Post columnist George Will.
In 2013, being on the House Appropriations Committee isn’t what it once was, even as compared to when Bonner was selected in 2008. Gridlock on Capitol Hill has change the way Congress passes budgets. Instead of the president submitting a budget proposal, and then the House crafting and passing a budget that is sent to Senate and then signed by the president, the funding of the government has been done in stopgap form.
Eventually, however, perhaps after a few election cycles, including one for the presidency, normalcy will return to Capitol Hill and an incumbent and more senior Rep. Roby will prove to be vital to Mobile’s interests, including the LCS program.
When Bonner stepped down earlier this year, defense contract experts speculated that it would be the beginning of the end for the Mobile-based Austal USA’s involvement with the LCS program. Even before Bonner offered any hint he would be stepping aside, the U.S. Navy had been strongly considering the prospect of cutting the LCS program in half.
Whether or not it was ingenious foresight or just happenstance, Austal USA reached out to Roby in the weeks following Bonner’s announcement. Roby has already shown her abilities to lobby the Pentagon and get results. She had been able to stop the scheduled departure of the U.S. Air Force’s 908th Airlift Wing from Maxwell AFB outside of Montgomery.
Instead of losing the 908th Airlift Wing to retirement, Roby grew the program by luring an additional C-130 to Maxwell AFB. She was also able to preserve 37,000 flight hours and 500 training positions at the U.S. Army’s Fort Rucker. Those hours were set to be gutted from the Wiregrass’ army installation due to sequestration.
To borrow sports terminology, preserving the presence of both of those in her district were viewed as mild upsets.
Little fanfare had been generated from Roby’s visit to Austal USA earlier this year that had coincided with the Airbus groundbreaking. However, with her new spot on the House Appropriations Committee and at least Austal USA on her radar, Roby’s position will be profoundly more important to Alabama’s first congressional district than a newly sworn in Byrne or LeFlore, at least in the short-term.
On the senate side of the equation, Sen. Richard Shelby and his staff have consistently insisted any potential for LCS cancelation has been exaggerated. Shelby, the ranking Republican of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, does indeed have the clout.
But as a constitutional matter, spending bills originate in the House of Representatives. And that’s a place the eventual congressman for Alabama first district is going to need all the help he can get.