A perennial penny pincher when it comes to policy, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann says he's "thankfully overwhelmed" about his new role helping to control the federal government's purse strings.
"There's a lot of waste, fraud and abuse," he said, "and now I can fight it up close."
It took only one term for the Ooltewah Republican to rise to what congressional insiders call an "A" committee; in January, Fleischmann joins the 50-member House Committee on Appropriations, one of four House panels considered so crucial that most appointees are asked to leave other committees before they begin.
Fleischmann will be the only Tennessean on House Appropriations, a fact his supporters volunteered with pride.
"Chuck got to Washington, figured out who he needed to know, who he needed to become friends with," longtime supporter Tom Decosimo said. "He did it. This is his reward, and it's a reward for the 3rd District."
Often regarded as the most powerful House committee, Appropriations doesn't carry the clout it once did. It's responsible for funding the federal government, but the committee formerly served as a perch from which "earmarks" could be used to direct money to local projects (derided as "pork" in some circles).
The House in 2011 voted to prohibit traditional earmarks, and Republican committee members are expected to cut funding, not bring home the bacon.
Fleischmann said that suits his governing philosophy despite a large federal presence in his district, including TVA and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
"I was thankfully overwhelmed by the fact they chose me for this committee so soon -- there was much more demand than there were slots," he said in a phone interview this week. "I think it's important to the country because my focus, of course, has been fiscal responsibility."
Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Paul Smith said Fleischmann was rewarded for "consistently doing what House leadership asks him to do."
The congressman declined to rebut that comment, but he has voted with GOP leadership 96 percent of the time. Twenty-three other House Republicans share that percentage, including Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and U.S. Rep. Todd Akin of Missouri, according to The Washington Post.
Fleischmann expects to leave his spots on the Transportation and Infrastructure and Science, Space and Technology committees.
His ascent to Appropriations wasn't as fast as that of U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, his North Georgia GOP colleague who was appointed in his first term. But Fleischmann reached Appropriations as quickly as than his predecessor, U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, who touted the assignment during bids for re-election.
Wamp has criticized Fleischmann for showing a lack of influence, especially on funding a new Chickamauga lock.
"It's a promotion, no matter how you look at it," Wamp said. Earlier this year, Wamp's 25-year-old son, Weston, and dairy executive Scottie Mayfield unsuccessfully challenged Fleischmann in this year's 3rd District Republican primary.
"We should all be glad that our congressman, whether we ran against him or not, got a promotion," the elder Wamp said. "Now the burden will be on him to serve well and use the influence as best he can to help his district, his state and his nation."
Alan Wiseman, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University, said some junior lawmakers are given Appropriations because they're "highly effective." Others, he said, are assigned to plum committees because "they might be coming from a very contested district and they're not politically safe" back home.
Wamp thinks the second explanation is closer to the truth. He pointed out that Fleischmann, an incumbent, got less than half the vote in a four-man Republican primary.
"Obviously," he said, "39 percent of the vote deems Congressman Fleischmann as a vulnerable member."
Fleischmann didn't hesitate when asked if he wanted to respond.
"Obviously, Mr. Wamp's a constituent now," Fleischmann said, "and I'll continue to work hard for all of my 700,000 constituents."