WASHINGTON -- After he was arrested, Willie "The Actor" Sutton was asked why he robbed banks. "That's where the money is," he replied.
A variation on that theme is occurring in a more genteel setting, the House of Representatives. Members are busy lobbying their colleagues to get one of at least 15 vacant seats on the Appropriations Committee, where the money is for pet projects and pork-barrel items that make constituents happy -- and keep members in office.
Record numbers of retirements and defeats this year are causing unprecedented vacancies on the House spending committee, considered one of the plum assignments in Congress. So far, 10 Democrats and five Republicans on Appropriations will be leaving. And with several appropriators facing tough re-election fights, a few more names could be added to that list.
No one can recall a larger number of Appropriations seats up for grabs. The 59 slots are usually filled by well-connected senior members, and most years only a handful of vacancies occur.
New committee seats for the next Congress won't be decided until December. But already lawmakers are busy trying to line up early support, buttonholing their colleagues on the House floor and along the marble-lined halls.
"They started months ago," said an aide to an Appropriations Committee member, explaining that members are silent about their lobbying efforts, not wanting to tip off their competition. "This is the kind of stuff you do in the shadows," said the aide.
At least 15 to 20 Democratic lawmakers already have said that they are interested in an Appropriations seat, according to staffers from the Democratic Caucus, the organization of all House Democrats.
A "large number" of Republicans also are vying for the slots, said an aide, though he didn't have a specific figure.
One of those members is reportedly Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, a Maryland Republican. But Mrs. Bentley insists she's waiting to move until after Nov. 3, when she knows who has survived the election and she can determine who is vying for other assignments.
Members also are jockeying for two other powerful panels: the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee, with a sprawling jurisdiction that ranges from corporate takeovers to health care and telecommunications.
Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the Democratic Caucus chairman, said colleagues approach him and others almost daily about their interest in serving on Appropriations, to which he already belongs.
Appropriations aspirants know that it's essential to line up support from House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, said one Hill staffer. "If he says, 'I'm for you,' you're two-thirds home," the aide said.
The committee hopefuls also target members of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, which in effect decides who gets what committee seats.
GOP members have their own panel with a bureaucratically poetic name -- the Committee on Committees -- which similarly assigns their open seats.
Besides Mr. Hoyer, the Maryland congressional delegation has two other members on high-powered panels. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat, serves on Ways and Means, and Crofton Democrat Rep. Tom McMillen sits on Energy and Commerce.
Although members of the delegation are expected to move up in seniority (should they survive at the polls), only Mr. Hoyer is in line to take over the chairmanship of a subcommittee. The Prince George's lawmaker is expected to lead the Treasury, Postal Service and General Government Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee, following the retirement of the current chairman, Rep. Edward R. Roybal of California.
Mr. Hoyer would then become a member of a select group of 13 spending subcommittee chairmen, whose power is reflected in their nickname: "The College of Cardinals."