Top Dog: Patty Murray and the Power to Bestow and Withhold


The great third powerhouse at Grand Coulee Dam is a vital Northwest resource, especially when electricity use soars during raw, cold, dark late fall and early winter days. I was present, as a high school student, at the Peace Arch when President Lyndon Johnson and Canada’s Prime Minister Lester “Mike” B. Pearson proclaimed the Columbia River Treaty which enabled its construction.

A great power on the Senate Appropriations Committee, longtime (1944-80) Sen. Warren Magnuson was crucial to getting federal dollars to build the giant turbines and working the water storage agreements that made it happen.  By the time voters ended his career in Congress, Maggie was chairman of Appropriations and president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., is in line to assume both positions when the next Congress convenes in January.  She will move up from chairing the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to chairing Appropriations and take the pro-tem position, putting her third in line to the presidency.

“Next Congress, Senator Murray intends to pursue the Appropriations Committee gavel,” her office said in a dry statement last week.  “As chair, Senator Murray would continue to do what she has done her entire career, put working families and Washington state first.”  She would be the second woman – Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Maryland, was first – to chair the powerful panel.

Murray will be the Senate’s fourth chief appropriator from these parts.  Maggie held power in the late 1970’s and relinquished the gavel to Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon.  After Hatfield retired the Senate in 1996, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, assumed the chairmanship to bring home federal bacon to a needy state.

Patty Murray seems a world apart from the cigar-smoking, martini-drinking, malaprop-prone Warren Magnuson. By inheriting the Appropriations gavel, she will have the power to bestow and withhold. The chairmanship comes with an almost primordial sense of turf.

Then-Vice President Walter Mondale recycled the same joke on several trips during Maggie’s reign. After strenuous negotiations in the Capitol, said Mondale, Sen. Magnuson had agreed to be “scrupulously fair” with federal appropriations for the year.  “He has decided to divide them up 50-50 – half for Washington State and half for the rest of the country.”  Mondale last told the story after Maggie put together a billion-dollar recovery package for Washington after the Mt. St. Helens eruption.

In the late 1980’s, I watched Sen. Hatfield ply his wares in Eastern Oregon counties. The senator, a Republican, was a passionate opponent of nuclear weapons:  A jaunty, young Navy Lt. Hatfield was one of the first American servicemen to see Hiroshima after it was bombed.  The experience changed his life.

Local business audiences in Hermiston and La Grande would politely applaud Hatfield’s warnings of a nuclear Armageddon.  Afterward, they would assume the role of supplicants, sitting down with Hatfield and top aide Gerry Frank, and laying out what their communities needed by way of federal projects.

A panel of nuclear scientists told the Reagan administration to shut down Hanford’s plutonium-producing N-reactor in the wake of the Soviet Union’s disaster at Chernobyl.  The reactor’s defenders were making a backstage bid to save it, hours before Energy Secretary John Herrington’s scheduled announcement.  Hatfield leaked the news, in full knowledge that the administration would not back off and contradict the chairman of Senate Appropriations.

Sen. Murray has been an appropriator since she first arrived in the Senate.  The senator’s first floor speech discussed the inequity in federal research and how spending shortchanged women’s health needs. She cited examples of friends who had died of ovarian cancer.  She’s had 30 years to work the issue, which has meant enhancing resources of the University of Washington’s Health Sciences Complex, which Magnuson helped create.

If Maggie got money to build dams, Murray has worked to remediate their environmental consequences.  Two examples: $1 billion for removal of culverts blocking upstream migration of salmon, and $172 million for the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. 

The coordination between Murray and seatmate Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has helped bring home $3.7 billion in spending from the Biden administration’s infrastructure package.  Three Moses Lake firms get $200 million to build a new plant manufacturing electric-vehicle batteries.  Whatcom County gets $25 million to replace the aging Lummi Island ferry.  A total of $71 million goes to improve airports in the state.

A group called Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has spent years recording pork-barrel excesses of appropriators.  It annually exchanged insults with the temperamental Sen. Stevens. He pushed through such expenditures as a $2.5 million pilot simulator at the University of Alaska, and $1.25 million for Aleutian Pribilof church repairs.  Some years ago, we stopped at the Alaska hamlet of Talkeetna, gateway for Denali-bound climbers.  The town had come by an elaborate new parking area and designated pedestrian walkways, the result of $400,000 secured by Ted.

Stevens and Rep. Don Young championed the “Bridge to Nowhere” that would have connected Ketchikan to neighboring Gravina Island, site of the town’s airport. The project became a national laughingstock.

It can be hard to stay angry at appropriators. Longtime (1976-2012) Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., served an influential member of the House Appropriations Committee.  Dicks was a provider, instrumental in getting to I-705 spur into Tacoma and remained a diehard defender and advocate for Boeing. Dicks also championed building the Armored Combat Earthmover (ACE)., a $1.7 million (apiece) boondoggle designed to dig trenches for Army tanks.

At the same time Dicks found dollars to acquire gorgeous Keystone Spit on Whidbey Island, which was threatened with real estate development, and also for the Douglas fir forests of Noisy Creek adjoining North Cascades National Park.  A classic Appropriator story from a few years back:  I received an early evening call from Brock Evans, a top official of the National Audubon Society.  He faced a perplexing challenge in putting out a release.  It sang Dicks’ praises for acquiring ancient forests of Long Island in Willapa Bay – ransomed from Weyerhaeuser – while damning Dicks for boosting the logging road budget for the U.S. Forest Service.

Murray has served in the Senate’s Democratic leadership and chaired the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.  She is trusted and called on, as is Cantwell.  Already a senior member of Appropriations, Murray was given chairmanship of the Senate Budget Committee after the 2012 election.  In that post, she helped stave off a government shutdown by negotiating a spending agreement with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan.  Sen. Cantwell, after her 2006 reelection, was given a coveted seat on the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.

Murray will have adult company in what’s expected to be a bitterly divided Congress.  The ranking Republican on Senate Appropriations is Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, a moderate.  The two have collaborated on dealing with sexual harassment in the military, and legislation to expand benefits to wounded, ill, and injured veterans.  Just-reelected Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is a senior committee member.  Across the Columbia River, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, chairs the Senate Finance Committee.

Appropriators leave their mark, and they let you know about it. Highways and buildings across West Virginia are named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd.  Visitors to the Oregon Coast can educate and entertain kids at the Mark O. Hatfield Marine Sciences Center in Newport.  Federal judges work inside, and antifa protesters demonstrate outside, the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in Portland. 

Murray has delivered a lot of partisan boilerplate as part of the Democratic leadership. Backstage, however, she has a knack for finding paths to compromise.  She was able to persuade arch-conservative Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, to stop blocking expansion of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. She worked with the HELP Committee’s then-chairman, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, on legislation to repair and replace the Bush Administration’s flawed No Child Left Behind Act.

The Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage boasts a statue of the Senator and a collection of (non-salty) Stevens sayings. The Norm Dicks Government Center serves Bremerton and Kitsap County, while a Dicks visitor center welcomes you to the Billy Frank, Jr., Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.

Maggie is honored with Magnuson Park, site of the old Sand Point Naval Air Station in Seattle. Otherwise, the shy senator was never big on nomenclature.  But he relished the pleasures of chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee.  As Magnuson put it in a memorable TV spot, “The meeting doesn’t start until I get there.”

President John F. Kennedy stopped off in Seattle for a 1961 Magnuson fundraising dinner at the Olympic Hotel, where Maggie lived, on visits to the state.  JFK brought down the house with a famous description of Magnuson in action:

“In Washington he speaks in the Senate so quietly few can hear him.  He comes into the Senate late in the afternoon.  He is very hesitant about interrupting other members.  When he rises to speak, most members of the Senate have left.  He sends his message up to the Senate and everyone asks, ‘What is it?’ “Senator Magnuson says, ‘Well, it’s nothing important.’ And Grand Coulee Dam is built.”

Maggie didn’t build the dam, of course. He did, however, master the art of getting a project under construction so Congress would dare not deny money to finish it.  Also, he knew how to lower controversy, such as constructing the Trident nuclear submarine base at Bangor to look like a quiet college campus.

But Kennedy made a point worth recalling 60 years later as another Washington senator assumes his old posts. Warren Magnuson was forever underestimated.  And so is Patty Murray.

Joel Connelly
Joel Connelly
I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.


  1. Joel – having covered all this for 50 plus years, no one can match your insights. During my time in Congress, I worked closely with Senators Magnuson and Hatfield. What stands out was the bipartisanship, especially in preserving our natural resources. In the 3rd District, landmark legislation passed, including The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Act, and much more. It was a time of civility and cooperation. As you mentioned, Patty “seems a world apart” from Maggie. But for the NW, it pays off to have seniority and chair the Senate’s important committees.

    • A lovely tribute, Mr. Bonker, considering that in 1992 you were her U.S. Senate primary opponent with strong backing from the Washington State Democratic Party’s insiders. Sen. Murray certainly was the underdog then.

  2. Murray should prove herself as capable a chair of Appropriations as Magnuson.
    He said he could get federal funds to pay for 80% of light rail. Murray should do the same — that would lighten Sound Transit’s heavy sales tax confiscations.


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