Jack Kingston’s 20-year career in the U.S. House has been shaped by his work on the powerful Appropriations Committee, where he has risen to a significant perch.
But as Kingston, of Savannah, attempts to navigate a wide-open Republican primary for Senate he must reckon with the tricky politics of being an appropriator at a time when an anti-spending tide has turned them from Santa Claus to Scrooge.
Appropriations is best known as the home of the earmark, a now-discontinued practice by which members of Congress direct federal money to specific projects, often in their home districts. Kingston was a frequent seeker of earmarks — and an early supporter of banning them.
“It used to be … you were able to sort of make it rain, if you will, for your constituents and your contributors,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. Today, “not only can you not make it rain, but it can be an albatross around the neck because you’re the one bringing these spending bills to the floor. For the Republicans it becomes a question of how fiscally conservative are you for being the one signing the check for spending billions of dollars.”
Without earmarks, and with Congress slashing agency spending rather than expanding it, being an appropriator is not as much fun, said Ellis, whose group advocates against government waste.
As the race to replace Republican U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss unfolds, Kingston is seeking to differentiate himself from fellow U.S. Reps. Phil Gingrey of Marietta and Paul Broun of Athens, who also have entered the race. No Democrat has formally declared a run.
Kingston says his record shows his zeal for budget cutting, whether it’s crusading against cost overruns at the Congressional Visitors Center or military bands.
But he also was a prolific earmarker who voted for George W. Bush-era spending bills that the tea party-infused Republican base sees as excessive.
According to a database by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Kingston secured $211 million in earmarks from Fiscal 2008 to 2010, making him the 25th biggest U.S. House earmarker in that span. Gingrey secured $94 million in earmarks in that time, while Broun did not bring in any.
“There’s an argument to be made for being in the center of the fight up here and delivering,” Kingston said. “And it’s a little bit different than sitting on the back bench and not engaging in the debates.”
Kingston, 58, was first elected to Congress in 1992, making him the longest-serving Georgia Republican. He rose to become a key member on the Appropriations Committee, where he is a “cardinal,” the committee’s Vatican-inspired nickname for subcommittee chairmen. Kingston now chairs the always-contentious subcommittee overseeing the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor and other related agencies.
A few years back Kingston was in charge of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing the legislative budget, and he ruffled feathers by railing against the spiraling cost of the Capitol Visitors Center, the $621 million monument to Congress that opened in 2008. Amid bad press about the visitors center in 2005, House leaders eliminated Kingston’s subcommittee.
Kingston also has led high-profile efforts to trim Pentagon budgets through reducing the number of military bands and banning military sponsorships of pro sporting events. The latter got him into a tussle with NASCAR.
In 2010 he mounted a campaign for appropriations chairman as a conservative alternative, but the more senior Hal Rogers of Kentucky won the post.
Kingston was an early sponsor of legislation to ban earmarks, which the House finally did in 2010 after a series of scandals. The Senate followed with a moratorium of its own in 2011. Though there is an argument to be made for Congress having a hand in spending projects rather than giving all the power to the administration, Kingston said earmarks had gotten out of control.
“It was absolutely abused and the substance and the numbers, the frequency was just untenable,” Kingston said. “I think that until we get spending back in line that we need to continue the moratorium. We need to focus more on the major drivers of spending, which (are) military, health care and retirement.”
As he started building his Senate campaign, Kingston voted against a March stopgap government funding bill, a rare act for him or any cardinal and a likely sign of primary race positioning.
Broun, for one, intends to press the issue of how Kingston uses his committee clout. In a statement through a spokeswoman he attacked Kingston for not supporting many of Broun’s program-slashing floor amendments.
“I consider the appropriations process the most pivotal opportunity to go through our expenditures, line by line, to determine where we can save the American taxpayers’ money,” Broun said. “As one of the most senior members of the Appropriations Committee, I’m not so sure Mr. Kingston feels the same way.”
Jack Smith, a tea party activist in Ellijay, has met with each of the three announced candidates. Kingston’s background will be a factor as Smith weighs who to support, but at this early stage he doesn’t view it as a deal-breaker.
“The jury is still out. Everyone’s backgrounds concern me. They’ve all been up in Washington and they’ve been a part of the challenges we face,” said Smith. “So I’m going to personally get more knowledgeable about each of them.”
Chris Collins is a conservative activist who worries the tea party movement is trending too far toward libertarianism. The 45-year-old truck dispatcher from Commerce said Kingston’s background with earmarks could play a defining role in the race to some of the most hard-core conservatives.
“I’m pretty much as anti-earmark as anybody can get. A lot of other people may look the other way, but I find the whole ideology of earmarks to be repulsive,” said Collins. “Will we ever find a perfect candidate? I don’t know, but I think there are better candidates out there. It’s just that they never come.”
Not surprisingly, some Savannah conservatives are more forgiving. Marolyn Overton, the co-founder of the Savannah Tea Party, was effusive in her support.
“I think he’ll help the Senate become more fiscally responsible. We’ve got to cut back on government. We can’t afford our government,” she said. “Sure, he has had some earmarks. But he’s the person to get rid of them. I know of very few elected officials who have not made use of earmarks, and there have been much more egregious use of earmarks than what he has done.”
The earmarks Kingston did win left him a trail of goodwill in his South Georgia district. The city of Kingsland, in Camden County, is about to break ground on a sewer line to an under-served area thanks to a $500,000 earmark Kingston secured in 2009.
“That’s a tremendous help, especially in these times,” said Kingsland Mayor Kenneth Smith Sr. “It’s our money that goes up there in the federal budget, isn’t it?”