Barb Wire

While other senators pose for the cameras, it’s Barbara Mikulski who is quietly doing the tough work of keeping the U.S. government at work.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) questions witnesses during a committee hearing about the potential impacts of "the sequester" on Capitol Hill February 14, 2013 in Washington, DC.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski was the first woman elected to the Senate “in her own right,” and not as a replacement for a dead spouse

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Fifteen years ago, long before she won the time-consuming chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Maryland Sen. Barbara Mikulski co-wrote a mystery novel. In Capitol Offense, a senator from Pennsylvania is fatally stricken during a polka contest. He’s replaced by Norrie Gorzack, a Polish-American nurse who tells it like it is and cracks the case of 16 missing MIAs.* After one long day, Gorzack returns home to cook a “passable eggplant” with “a dash of olive oil.” She gets a mysterious message, a rough voice telling her she’s “treading on dangerous ground,” but “the guys from Nam, guys from Delta Force, know you’re up to the job.”

Gorzack/Mikulski doesn’t break a sweat. “I played the recording through two more times,” she writes, “and then went back to my eggplant.”

This was fiction, but it was Mikulski as she wanted to be seen. (She’s 4 feet 11 inches tall, but made her heroine taller so she could “vicariously” be 5 feet 4 inches.) Every other Mikulski story grows out of a cliché. She was the first Democratic woman elected to the Senate “in her own right,” not as a replacement for a dead spouse.* She’s also on every list of “meanest senators,” ranked by staff turnover and anecdote. In 2005, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid told reporters about the time he was getting flack for a pro-life vote and Mikulski told Democrats to leave him alone. “Everybody walked away,” Reid said. “Because everybody’s afraid of her.”

That is one of the anecdotes people are allowed to print, and they do, all the time. It does a pretty good job of framing Mikulski’s current job: The Last Defender of Liberalism. In December 2012, after Hawaii Sen. Daniel Inouye died, Mikulski won the top job on Appropriations.* For all the attention given to House and Senate budgets, those documents set spending targets but don’t fund the government. Appropriations bills do that. It would be up to Mikulski to save spending from the House Republicans.

She wasn’t first in line for this. Two senior senators, Vermont’s Patrick Leahy and Iowa’s Tom Harkin, passed on the job. To reporters this meant that the committee had “lost its luster,” and reporters were basically right. For decades, Approps was the place where senators from small states—West Virginia, Alaska, Mississippi—rerouted money to where they wanted it. But ever since December 2010, Congress has sworn off the “earmarks” that specifically direct spending to members’ pet programs—like, say, $2.5 million for a company working on unmanned drones in Lexington Park, Md. And not since 2009 had the Senate passed a budget with spending targets. Congress was moving from kludge to kludge, between continuing resolutions that funded the government. The thankless work of making this happen now fell to Mikulski.

“She’s an appropriator,” says Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. “She believes in this—she goes back and forth with the subcommittees. It’s a natural fit.”

This year’s continuing resolution was the first test. Democrats hated it from the outset. In order to keep the government running past March 27, House Republicans put together a spending package that held federal expenses to $982 billion, in line with the sequestration cuts. But Republicans hadn’t wanted sequestration to hit defense spending. So they added back some of the money—$127.5 billion total for military pay, $2 billion for embassy security, and so on. They left the cuts to social programs, with the implicit warning that restoring those cuts meant losing the House Republicans’ votes.

People who’ve worked on the Hill before and during the Tea Party era have numerous theories of why the system’s broken. If they reduce it to personality, it’s simple: Sen. Inouye was universally loved, but didn’t push people. Mikulski pushes. Her job was to defend spending, which is easy to deride, against cries of “waste,” which are media catnip. Mikulski avoided the catnip. After the House passed its continuing resolution, a reporter started to ask Mikulski about John Boehner’s demands, and she cut off the question.

“Congressman Boehner’s going to talk about what he needs to talk about,” she said. “We are definitely not in a posture of being provocative or pugilistic … if we want to be pugilistic we would have taken some of these bills and just jammed it through.” She referred to the Senate’s bill as “Mikulski-Shelby,” giving credit to Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member. They would work it out between members. “I don’t know if we’ll have a full blown, everybody see it, kumbaya, read everything,” she said; there was a difference “between a conversation and a conclave.”

A few days later, Mikulski released the bipartisan—always bipartisan!—amendment to the bill. Funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children was increased, along with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families along with funding for civil legal services. (One of Mikulski’s stock self-descriptions is that she’s a “social worker with power.”) On March 12, when this came to the floor, it met the expected resistance from media-savvy spending-cutters. Arizona Sen. John McCain and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, who regularly publish (or tweet) lists of ludicrous-sounding government programs, demanded more time with the bill.

“It wouldn’t be a real bill if you two didn’t offer amendments,” said Mikulski. “In the days when we were skeptical and even suspicious of one another, you wanted to look at it to make sure there were no cheap gimmicks, no little fast hand motions, no earmarks parachuted in. But I can say this: After the Democrats finished the bill, we gave it to Sen. Shelby and his staff. This bill has been very much scrutinized so that any of those tricks of the old days are not here … if anyone spots something they think is a cute gimmick, I would sure like to know about it.”

Mikulski parked on the floor and managed the debate. This took days, and attracted some minuscule percentage of the coverage that went to Sen. Rand Paul’s drone filibuster. It ended in a win late Wednesday afternoon—63 votes for cloture, nine of them from Republicans. A reliable group of moderates and appropriators had come through, dreaming of a day when they could actually hash out yearly budgets instead of flat-footing between crises.

“It’s not exactly the way things should be done, but it’s better than the rut we’ve fallen into,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who voted for cloture. “We’re going to see a lot more actual appropriations activity on the Senate floor, in this Congress, than we’ve seen over the last four years.”

Democrats, by nature more worried about stasis than the Republicans, were optimistic for the same reasons. Hacking out a bill today means, maybe, getting back to the normal budget process tomorrow. Doing that, said Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, means that the next round of budget negotiations return to “a balanced way, instead of just trying to cut our way to deficit reduction.”

“Once you get a bill to the floor, and you get two managers who both want it to pass, things happen!” said Levin. “Positive things happen around here!”  It had just been so long since a budget meant anything but “messaging.”

Mikulski doesn’t really do messaging. When Bob Shrum was working for her 1986 campaign, and Republicans tried to stoke the rumor that she was gay, Mikulski denied it. “There was no Ted Kennedy who ever asked me out,” she joked to Shrum. When new hires join her staff, they get a green card describing “BAM’s Principles.” Among them:

We cannot always guarantee an outcome, but we can guarantee an effort.
Always be clear about: “What is the objective we seek?”
Goals should be specific, immediate and realizable.
Just move it.

Correction, March 21, 2013: This article originally misidentified Sen. Barbara Mikulski as the first woman elected to the Senate “in her own right.” She was the first Democratic woman to do so. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also originally misspelled the first name of the Polish-American nurse in Capitol Offense, Norrie Gorzack (return to the corrected sentence) and Sen. Daniel Inouye’s last name (return to the corrected sentence).