Owens, a Democrat from Plattsburgh, will be a minority member, but he's likely to be heavily courted by lobbyists from all corners of the country. He represents New York's 21st Congressional District, a vast region which includes most of the North Country.
“In truth, I was a bit surprised when it happened,” Owens said. “Obviously, I was very happy, but surprised nonetheless that it happened this early on in my career in Congress.”
Bill Owens said he sought out membership on the Appropriations Committee but didn’t expect to get appointed. The appointment was formalized by the House Democratic Steering Committee on Jan. 4.
Owens said he will now have more influence on federal spending.
“I think that for a number of reasons, that’s very helpful to the district,” he said. “It allows you to have input on virtually every issue that is going on in the government today. It continues my ability to help on Armed Services in Fort Drum. It continues my ability to help with [agricultural] issues, with the border, with schools and education - virtually everything that impacts people in the district comes before this committee. So in terms of getting a broader based view, and having a broader impact, I thought this was very important that I at least seek this opportunity.”
Jack McGuire is a political science professor at SUNY Potsdam. He said he thinks Owens got the assignment because his district is leaning Democrat more so than in the past, and Democrats want to hold onto the seat.
“So how can you hold onto that seat? Put somebody on that committee who might be able to serve the district well,” he said. “And so I think that’s part of the reason Bill Owens is now serving on that committee.”
The Appropriations Committee was established in 1865. It sets funding levels for federal child care and educational programs, the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and more.
McGuire said Owens should expect more attention from lobbyists. That’s because the Appropriations Committee decides how much funding individual bills will get.
“So in terms of the entirety of all the funding for all of the different programs, departments, bureaus, agencies - it goes through the Appropriations Committee,” McGuire said. “And so all of the trillions of dollars that fund the federal government are overseen, in at least one aspect, by the Appropriations Committee, which Bill Owens sits on.”
The committee is an exclusive one, meaning Owens had to relinquish his membership on the Armed Services, Small Business and Agriculture committees. McGuire said because Appropriations is so powerful, it wouldn’t be fair for its members to sit on other committees at the same time.
“It’s a way in which to mollify, or to keep members in the House happy,” he said. “And to not concentrate power too much in the hands of the few.”
McGuire said traditionally, members of the Appropriations Committee are known for “bringing home the bacon.” In other words, its members are able to negotiate funding items that benefit their home districts.
“You can rest assured that there’s going to be a lot of the proverbial ornaments hanging off of the Christmas tree,” McGuire said. “In all likelihood, he’ll serve on different conference committees that are dealing with appropriations bills, and often times in the conferences, that’s where you’re going to see different little riders, if you want to call them riders, or little bits of pork that are put into the bills. I would imagine that some of that will come back to his district.”
But Congress renewed a ban on earmarks this past fall, and Owens said 99 percent of the pork that used to be attached to appropriations bills has gone away. He said his goal is to make sure his district receives a proportional amount of federal funding, especially as Congress prepares to make spending cuts.
“I want to make sure that we, in the 21st, are getting the things that we need and a fair shake in this appropriations process,” Owens said.
Owens has said that he wants Congress to get more specific about where the federal government needs to cut spending. He said his new committee appointment will give him a louder voice as those talks begin to take shape.
“You can reduce, if you will, the appropriation to a particular area, and therefore effect a cut,” Owens said. “And I’m hoping I can bring some common sense to the process.”
McGuire stressed that the appointment is a big deal for Owens, who is still a relatively fresh face in Washington. But Owens himself seemed to downplay it.
“Clearly, I’m honored that the leadership in my caucus felt that I was a person who could do this job,” he said. “And I think it reflects on my attitude, generally, that I’m always trying to search out the facts. I don’t usually overreact to things; sometimes I’m criticized for that. But I’m really trying to understand what’s the issue, what are the facts and how do we make a good decision.”