Letters from the West

Mike Simpson will compete for a powerful job in the U.S. House

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. is seeking to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee.
U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. is seeking to chair the powerful House Appropriations Committee. McClatchy

U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, says he has joined the race to be chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

At least three other Republicans have announced their interest in succeeding Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., who announced he will retire at the end of his term this year.

Simpson, who is serving his 10th term in Congress, has long desired to chair the committee that controls the purse strings of the federal government.

But two of the announced candidates, Reps. Robert Aderholt of Alabama and Kay Granger of Texas, have more seniority than Simpson. And if Democrats capture enough seats in the 2018 election, Republicans could lose control of the House and control of the committees.

“I think the odds are long,” Simpson said Thursday in a telephone interview from White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., where congressional Republicans are holding a retreat to talk about legislative and campaign strategy.

Simpson said holding on to control of the House is the top priority.

“If we don’t work to maintain the majority, nothing else will matter,” Simpson said.

Each of the four candidates are chairs of Appropriation subcommittees, called the “cardinals” by many in the House because of the power they wield on spending issues.

The fourth candidate is Rep. Tom Cole from Oklahoma. He would have to jump over six other congressmen with higher seniority to get the job.

But that happens sometimes. Committee chairmen are chosen by the House Republican Steering Committee, which Simpson served on for a term. During their votes — held after each election — House leaders can use extra votes to pick specific people they want in place.

If Republicans hold on to the House, the margin over Democrats may be slimmer. Simpson is viewed as a problem-solver who works with Democrats, a valuable skill, said John Freemuth, a Boise State University political science professor.

“What they’re going to need is someone who can work across the aisle,” Freemuth said. “Clearly that’s what Simpson does.”

But the eastern Idaho dentist and former speaker of the Idaho House also led efforts to cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 35 percent during the Obama years, when he chaired the Appropriations subcommittee on Interior. He wrote language that removed the gray wolf from the endangered species list in Idaho and Montana.

Most recently, Simpson is best known in Idaho for passing a bill to protect 275,000 acres in central Idaho as wilderness. He also has worked to protect the Land and Water Conservation Fund used for local and state parks and public land protection. With Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, Simpson pushed for funds to accelerate cleaning up nuclear waste at the Idaho National Laboratory and to elevate its mission as the main research laboratory for nuclear power.

His taking the chair of Appropriations would continue a trend of growing influence among Idaho’s congressional delegation. Crapo last year became the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Risch, who currently heads the Senate Small Business Committee, is next in line to lead Senate Foreign Relations.

“We have a great, all-Republican congressional delegation that is clearly respected and trusted in D.C. for their ability to put Idaho first,” said Jonathan Parker, chairman of the Idaho Republican Party. “Congressman Simpson’s advance through the House Appropriations Committee is obviously critical to the INL, but it’s also critical to farmers, ranchers, loggers, miners, high tech, tourism, small business men and women and all other aspects of Idaho’s economy.”

But Simpson has his critics on the right and the left. He easily defeated a challenge by Idaho Falls lawyer Bryan Smith in 2014, who had the backing of the conservative Club for Growth.

If Democrats win control of the House, Simpson is not interested in being ranking minority leader on the committee because he would have to give up his subcommittee chairmanship, he said.

“Our focus right now is trying to maintain the majority,” he said.

Rocky Barker: 208-377-6484, @RockyBarker