There Are Two Types of Politicians

Two horses next to each other
Photo by Patrick Schneider / Unsplash

At a conference I was once at, a man started his talk by saying, "There are two types of people. Those who think there are two types of people and those who don't."

Of course, I like to think that I'm the enlightened latter.


When it comes to politicians, there are actually two types that everyone, regardless of political stripe, agrees on.

There are authorizers and there are appropriators. (This isn't as neat at the local level, so we'll focus on state and federal today.)

Before you think this is the kickoff to SnoozeFest2024, let me say that cash money - $$$!!! - is involved here.

Legislatures have a few responsibilities, but in many ways, they boil down to two main things: they need to write bills and they need to fund those bills.

The people who write bills are called authorizers. And let's be clear: these politicians never once put quill to parchment. Every legislature has an entity - in Congress, it's called Legislative Counsel - that puts ideas into the poetry that is legislative language.

(a) In General.—
(1) CANCELLATION.—Effective on the date of enactment of this subsection—
(A) neonicotinoid pesticides shall be deemed to generally cause unreasonable adverse effects to the environment; and
(B) notwithstanding any other provision of law, including section 6(b) of the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (7 U.S.C. 136(d)), the registration of all uses of neonicotinoid pesticides shall be immediately and permanently canceled by operation of law and without further proceedings.

If that's not the language of love, show me what is.

(Just in case the poetry above wasn't crystal clear to you, it's from a bill on protecting bees from harmful pesticides, which I am totally on board with.)

The politicians who fund these bills are called appropriators. They sit on the Appropriations Committee where they wield some Big League power. You can authorize until you're blue in the face, but if you don't have money for all the fabulous things you've authorized, it's hard to get much off the ground. (Note: there are some bills that don't have a price tag and those can find a path forward without appropriations.) Plus if you sit on Approps, there's a decent chance some of your priorities will get funded.

The other power appropriators have is their work has to get done. Unless, of course, you're Congress, in which case funding the government is more optional these days. But even then, the government eventually comes around to getting funded, while plenty of authorizing bills do not.

And since we're at it, one other thing: appropriators can also direct how that funding is used, which can amplify or undermine the authorizer's intentions. Quoth House Republican Appropriators (who are currently in the majority):

"Rescinding wasteful Democrat spending for a supercharged army of 85,000 IRS agents and their associated payroll systems."

With that kind of warm spiritedness, what I'm about to say will make total sense: Approps Committees are often (though not always) some of the more mature places in legislatures. While there's plenty of show boating for press releases (see aforementioned supercharged IRS army), behind closed doors, a decent number of appropriators and their staff have functioning across-the-aisle working relationships. Many Approps staffers have been in the legislature for a long time and know the practicality of comity.

So let's see if our federal and state legislators are authorizers and/or appropriators (politicians can be both, though the majority are authorizers, since not everybody can be on the Appropriations Committee).

Step One: Click here to find out who your federal and state legislators are. (If you already know, 1,000 points! If you don't, 1,000 points for learning today!)

Step Two: Check their bios to see if they sit on the Appropriations Committee. If they don't, they are authorizers. So why not check to see what authorizing Committees they sit on. For example, one of my Senators, Angus King, sits on the Veterans Affairs, Intelligence, Armed Services, and Natural Resources Committees.

I've got two appropriators in my Congressional delegation: Senator Susan Collins is Vice Chair of the Senate Approps Committee and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree sits on the House Approps Committee. My state legislators are all authorizers.

The fact that Senator Collins is Vice Chair of Approps means she likely has a good working relationship with Approps Chair, Sen. Patty Murray. Vice Chair is a far more equitable title than Ranking Member (the typical title of the most powerful minority party member on a Committee) and the Chair has to agree to that. A good working relationship makes for a much more productive Committee. And perhaps suggests that most of Congress has a bad working relationship.

Now, if you find yourself with a gaggle of authorizers representing you, that certainly doesn't mean they're chopped liver. Despite all the power of appropriators, their funding bills typically only last one year. (Continuing Resolutions or CRs are a whole other matter that we'll get into a whole other time.) But if an authorizer gets a bill passed, that could be permanent or at the very least longer than a year. And authorization bills are, in many ways, the very laws we live under. Plenty of hardworking authorizers do get some of their priorities passed. In Congress these days, that's usually by hitching them onto must-pass bills; in state legislatures, typically more bills are passed anyways.

So next time you reach out to your legislator, keep in mind what kind of politician they are. One of our greatest powers in policy change is understanding the power our policymakers have to make change.

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