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U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma tapped by GOP as House Appropriations chairman 


U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma tapped by GOP as House Appropriations chairman 

Apr 10, 2024 | 8:45 am ET
By Jennifer Shutt
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma tapped by GOP as House Appropriations chairman聽
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., was approved as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee by the GOP Steering Committee on Tuesday. In this photo, he leaves during a break in a House Republican caucus meeting at the Longworth House Office Building in October 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images) (This image cannot be republished unless you have a Getty subscription.)

WASHINGTON — Republican Rep. Tom Cole will likely become the next chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — and the first Oklahoman to ever serve in the post — after gaining the approval of the GOP Steering Committee on Tuesday evening.

The closed-door vote, confirmed by Cole and members of the committee, was something of a formality since he didn’t have any official challengers in the bid for the gavel and is expected to gain approval of the full House Republican Conference.

Cole joked after the vote that “it’s kind of hard to lose a race when you’re the only guy” running and said he plans to get to work immediately.

“I think we’ll be in awfully good shape, honestly, in getting the bills through the committee. I’m pretty hopeful,” Cole said of the upcoming process. “I’m a lot more fortunate than Tom Emmer. I’ve got a bigger majority in Approps committee than he’s got on the floor.” Emmer, of Minnesota, is the House majority whip.

Cole said he expects that Congress will need to rely on a stopgap spending bill in September to keep the federal government running through Election Day and that whoever wins those contests will decide when lawmakers wrap up their annual process.

“The winner will probably decide — Do we want to finish business this calendar year, which is always the best thing to do, win or lose, or do you want to kick it into next year?” Cole said.

“I hope we don’t do that, but that’s the way I see the year unfolding right now,” he added.

Cole told States Newsroom in an interview prior to the vote that preserving Republican priorities while striking bipartisan deals within the divided Congress will be a hallmark of his tenure in the role. A failure to do so would lead to a partial government shutdown.

“If you don’t know how to compromise you can’t be an appropriator. And honestly, I don’t think you’re going to be very good at governing,” Cole said.

“It’s a big, diverse country, very polarized, very evenly divided now. And sadly, we live in a period of time when people are generally condemned if they come to an agreement, as a sell out. You used to be a statesman, if you came to an agreement.”

Cole said he “understands the limits of the possible given the size of the majority we have and the nature of our institutions,” but emphasized he didn’t plan on letting GOP priorities get rolled under his leadership.

“That comes from being around the place for a long time and trying to take my work seriously,” Cole said.

Directing $1.7 trillion in spending

Becoming Appropriations chairman will make Cole one of the more important members of Congress, deciding spending levels and policy throughout the dozen annual government funding bills.

Those bills totaled about $1.7 trillion for the current fiscal year and determined everything from troop pay to spending on immigration enforcement to investment in medical research to public lands funding, and much more.

Cole will take the helm of the committee just as it begins work on the bills for fiscal 2025, which are due Oct. 1.

Cole, at the moment, plans to stick to the funding levels for defense and nondefense discretionary accounts that were included in the debt limit deal that former House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and President Joe Biden struck last year, though if GOP leaders decide on a different set of numbers, the committee will write its bills to that amount.

“Broadly speaking, yes, we have an agreement,” Cole said. “Now, side deals, that’s been difficult. And it would be a lot easier if people put everything in the deal that was in the deal. Side deals complicate things quite a bit and they put this speaker in a challenging position.”

Thousands of federal employees in home district

Cole noted during the interview that his 4th Congressional District in Oklahoma ranks 16th in terms of federal employees, putting it up with Virginia and Maryland districts that are just outside the nation’s capital as well as a few others.

The district includes nearly 25,000 federal employees, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. Cole’s congressional website says “the largest employers in the district include Fort Sill Army Post, Tinker Air Force Base and the University of Oklahoma.”

Cole said that as well as his lifelong experiences will affect his thinking and actions as Appropriations chairman.

“We’ve never had an Appropriations chair from Oklahoma and obviously you are shaped by your own political environment,” Cole said. “I happen to represent a federal-heavy state. We have five major military installations. But my district in particular, is federal heavy.”

Cole said that he and the state’s residents have an interest in Native American issues and that he plans to focus on that as chairman. He is an enrolled member of the Chickasaw Nation.

“We don’t have that many Native members (in Congress) and obviously there are many districts that don’t have too much of a tribal presence,” Cole said. “But a lot of the West does, and certainly a lot of the Upper Midwest, or the Plains states.”

“I think having somebody that actually knows and cares about those issues will be a little bit unusual,” he added.

Native American communities are a “very neglected part of our population,” Cole said, though he hopes to change that in some ways.

“A lot of people don’t understand tribal sovereignty and what it is, nor do they understand the trust and responsibility the United States government has assumed in exchange for all of these lands that were not given, they were usually bargained away in exchange for some commitments that were made,” Cole said.

“And sadly I think most Americans would acknowledge over the course of our history a lot of those commitments haven’t been kept,” Cole said. “That’s something I’ll bring a special emphasis to.”

Cole said he also planned to focus on agriculture issues, defense and natural disaster response and recovery.

Second attempt at chairmanship

Cole succeeds Texas Rep. Kay Granger, who announced in late March she would step aside from the leadership role and take on the title of Chair Emeritus until she retires at the end of this Congress.

This was Cole’s second bid for the top Republican slot on the committee after throwing his hat in the ring alongside Granger and several other Republicans in 2018, following the retirement of then-Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, a New Jersey Republican.

During his interview, Cole said becoming chairman of the Appropriations Committee has “been a long-term ambition” and that those plans moved to the forefront after Granger “surprised us all by making the decision to leave a little bit early.”

Cole has a long tenure on the spending panel, first joining in 2009, and has negotiated numerous full-year spending bills with Democrats, including one of the more daunting appropriations bills, the massive Labor-HHS-Education measure.

Connecticut Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro, ranking member of the full committee, served with Cole on that subcommittee for years, giving the two a footing to work off of as they lead their respective parties through the fiscal 2025 process.

Senate Appropriations Chair Patty Murray, a Washington state Democrat, was the leader of that same subcommittee in her chamber, working with Cole and DeLauro to negotiate that spending bill.

“I know how to work with my colleagues in a constructive way across the line,” Cole said. “I think we all know our respective red lines.”

Cole noted during his interview he’s also worked for years with Maine Sen. Susan Collins, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Together — Cole if elected by the full GOP conference, DeLauro, Murray and Collins — will make up what’s referred to as the “four corners” of the committee and are responsible for making final decisions on all dozen of the full-year spending bills once the House and Senate begin their conference process, typically in the fall.

Cole currently holds the role of subcommittee chairman on the Transportation-HUD panel, but is expected to give up that position once officially full committee chairman.

Cole will also step aside from chairing the House Rules Committee, the leadership panel that typically reviews substantial bills and approves amendments before the legislation moves to the House floor.

Cole was first elected to Congress in 2002. Before then, he held numerous positions, including chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party from 1985 to 1989, state senator from 1988 to 1991, executive director of the National Republican Congressional Committee from 1991 to 1993, Oklahoma secretary of state from 1995 to 1999 and chief of staff for the Republican National Committee from 1999 to 2001.

Cole was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on April 28, 1949. He graduated from Moore High School in Oklahoma in 1967 and Grinnell College in Iowa in 1971. He received a master’s degree from Yale University in 1974 and a PhD from the University of Oklahoma in 1984.

Alabama congressman wanted vote postponed

While Cole didn’t have any competition for the role of chairman, one of the senior GOP lawmakers on the committee publicly expressed frustration with the process in the days ahead of the Steering Committee vote.

Alabama Republican Rep. Robert Aderholt released a letter last week calling on House GOP leaders to postpone the vote, though they did not agree to that request.

“Instead of hastily selecting a new Appropriations Chair, I believe that now is the time to focus on correcting the process and developing our theory of government on how we will manage our responsibilities,” Aderholt wrote. “Our Conference must work together to define a clear direction forward before choosing a Chairman to lead us there.”

A House Republican aide, speaking on background to discuss Aderholt’s deliberations, told States Newsroom in November the congressman was deliberating whether to officially enter the race and said they expected it to be a “new ballgame” under Johnson’s leadership.

Aderholt told reporters on Tuesday evening that he wasn’t expecting Granger to step down as chairwoman mid-session.

“I had not planned to run so quickly,” he said.

Aderholt never publicly entered the race for the Appropriations Committee chairman as of Tuesday’s vote, though he did express frustrations with the annual process in his letter.

Aderholt also wrote an op-ed that was published in the Capitol Hill-focused newspaper Roll Call on Tuesday morning that includes some of his proposed changes to the process.

“As we now operate with one of the smallest majorities in history, without comprehensive reform as I’ve begun to outline, the appropriations process will continue to fail. It seems everyone is staring at the iceberg but unwilling to change course,” Aderholt wrote. “This is not news to anyone, yet some of my colleagues seem willing to stick with and build upon the status quo.”

Aderholt currently holds the gavel as the Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations Subcommittee chairman.

Speaker advocates changes in process

House Speaker Mike Johnson, a Louisiana Republican, has said repeatedly he hopes to make changes to how lawmakers approach the annual government funding process to make it more palatable for conservative lawmakers, who have aired grievances with it for years.

Georgia GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene was so angry that Johnson allowed a floor vote on a bipartisan $1.2 trillion spending package late last month that she filed a motion to remove Johnson from the speaker’s office.

Greene hasn’t said when or even if she may force the full House to take a vote on ousting Johnson, but so far has used the motion to vacate as a public rebuke of how he’s handled government funding bills.

Congress is tasked with approving 12 appropriations bills every year before the start of the upcoming fiscal year on Oct. 1, though members haven’t completed all of their work on time since 1996.

During the most recent process, fiscal 2024, House Republicans were able to report 10 of those bills out of the Appropriations Committee on party-line votes and approve seven on the House floor.

The Senate approved all dozen of the bills in committee on broadly bipartisan votes and approved three on the floor, also with bipartisan backing.

The two chambers, one held by Republicans and the other held by Democrats, used a series of stopgap spending bills to avoid a partial government shutdown until they completed work on the bills nearly six months late, in March.

Congress approved a $468 billion six-bill spending package in early March before wrapping up work on the $1.2 trillion spending package encompassing the other six bills in late March.

Biden has already submitted his budget request for fiscal 2025, which is slated to begin in less than six months, starting off the next process.

The House Appropriations Committee’s dozen subcommittees have begun holding hearings with Cabinet secretaries and agency leaders to review their latest round of funding requests before they begin drafting the next batch of bills, likely in late spring or early summer.

Cole moving into the role of chairman will provide the panel with one leader throughout that process, which will likely not wrap up until at least the lame-duck session of Congress following the November elections.