As Republicans gain majority control this month of the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Chuck Fleischmann has been appointed to head a congressional panel that oversees funding for the Department of Energy, the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Fleischmann, a Chattanooga Republican and the only Tennessee member of Congress on the House Appropriations Committee, will be chairman of the Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee in the 118th Congress that convened in Washington earlier this month.
In his role as one of a dozen so-called "cardinals" in the U.S. House of Representatives, Fleischmann will lead the House panel that last year allocated a record $7.4 billion in federal funds for Oak Ridge Reservation, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the Y-12 National Security Complex and the East Tennessee Technology Park in the northern part of Fleischmann's 3rd Congressional District in East Tennessee.
(READ MORE: Fleischmann on McCarthy speaker bid: 'I think he will get there')
"This is a critically important position for our great state and our nation," Fleischmann said in a statement after Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Kay Granger, R-Texas, announced the subcommittee assignments. "I am excited to find bipartisan common ground to advance important initiatives like modernizing our nation's nuclear stockpile and advancing groundbreaking nuclear fusion research."
Fleischmann is beginning his seventh term in Congress and previously served as the ranking member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Homeland Security when Democrats controlled the House of Representatives in the previous Congress. The 60-year-old GOP lawmaker, a longtime supporter of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, sought to be chairman of the energy and water subcommittee, which provides most of the federal funding for projects in his congressional district.
"Congressman Fleischmann has worked diligently over the last four years to strengthen our homeland security, and as chairman of the Energy and Water Subcommittee, I know he will work to cut wasteful government spending and restore fiscal responsibility while meeting our military and energy security needs," Granger said in her appointment Monday of Fleischmann and 11 other subcommittee chairs.
The bills passed by the Appropriations Committee regulate expenditures of money by the government of the United States, and the subcommittee chairs often exert considerable influence in crafting the budget plans for the federal agencies under their jurisdiction.
"This is a big deal for the 3rd Congressional District and for the state, and it is certainly good news for Oak Ridge," Kent Syler, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Syler, who previously worked on Capitol Hill for former Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tennessee, said Congress "is certainly polarized today" and major legislation may be difficult to pass with the Senate controlled by Democrats and Republicans in the majority in the U.S. House. But the federal budget must be approved each year.
"So even in a deadlocked and barely functioning Congress, Rep. Fleischmann's committee can make a difference and have real impact," he said.
Oak Ridge benefited in the past when then-U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, was chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. Alexander's successor, U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tennessee, is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee but is not a subcommittee chair.
"I'll be stepping up in a very senior role, not only for the 3rd Congressional District but for the entire state of Tennessee," Fleischmann said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
(READ MORE: Final McCarthy win had support of all Tennessee, Georgia Republican members)
McCarthy has pledged to "restore regular order" in how the federal budget is developed by having Congress vote on all 12 of the funding measures by each of the Appropriations subcommittees without any omnibus spending packages that combine appropriation measures into single packages, often adopted after the federal fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
To help win conservative Republican votes for his election as House Speaker, McCarthy also agreed to put several members of the conservative Freedom Caucus on key House committees, including the Appropriations Committee. Fleischmann said he will work to be a "peacekeeper" among differing GOP factions to keep the federal government operating while finding ways to limit deficit spending without raising taxes.
Congress must avoid defaulting on the U.S. debt that would undermine the U.S. dollar as the global currency, Fleischmann said. But after the federal debt has more than doubled during his tenure in Congress to more than $31 trillion, Fleischmann also said he will work to control the growth in federal spending.
"As chairman, I will also work to cut all wasteful and unnecessary government spending and ensure that every dollar of the taxpayer's money is responsibly allocated," Fleischmann said.
Fleischmann said he is also hopeful he will also be appointed to serve as a member of both the Appropriations subcommittees on homeland security and defense to give him what he said would be "all three aces" for working on the federal budget.
As a House cardinal, Fleischmann said he will be able to develop and write the funding bills for energy and water programs that are key to East Tennessee, including not only the research and military projects in Oak Ridge, but also projects like the Chickamauga Lock in Chattanooga, the oversight agency for TVA's nuclear plants in Soddy-Daisy and Spring City and the Appalachian Regional Commission that funds an array of development projects in rural counties across Appalachia.
Without changing existing laws, nearly three-fourths of this year's $5.8 trillion federal budget is for mandated spending, including Social Security, Medicare and interest on the federal debt. In fiscal 2023, about a fourth of the budget, or $1.6 trillion, is considered discretionary spending and is controlled each year by annual appropriations bills.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen notified Congress last week that the U.S. is projected to reach its debt limit Thursday and will then resort to "extraordinary measures" to avoid default, which without a higher debt limit could be reached by June.
"We have a Democratically controlled Senate and Republicans in the House with a very slim majority who want to see some degree of fiscal discipline restored to the process," Fleischmann said. "So this will be a negotiation process, and I certainly hope we can address this (debt limit). I don't know where this is ultimately going to land, but I can tell you that Republicans in the House will be steadfast in their belief that there will be no vote for a higher debt ceiling limit without some form of long-term fiscal restraint."
The new 'cardinals' in the House
The chairmen of the Appropriations subcommittees in the U.S. House of Representatives include:
— Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration: Rep. Andy Harris (Maryland).
— Commerce, Justice, Science: Rep. Hal Rogers (Kentucky)
— Defense: Rep. Ken Calvert (California)
— Financial Services and General Government: Rep. Steve Womack (Arkansas)
— Homeland Security: Rep. Dave Joyce (Ohio)
— Interior and Environment: Rep. Mike Simpson (Idaho)
— Labor, Health and Human Services, Education: Rep. Robert Aderholt (Alabama)
— Legislative Branch: Rep. Mark Amodei (Nevada)
— Military Construction and Veterans Affairs: Rep. John Carter (Texas)
— State Department, Foreign Operations: Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (Florida)
— Transportation, Housing and Urban Development: Rep. Tom Cole (Oklahoma)
— Energy and Water: Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (Tennessee)
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or 423-757-6340.