How Clout Is Shifting in Congress
Kansas, Texas, Oregon lose seniority; South gains
Last year Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas received a phone call from a desperate Kansas State University student.Skip to next paragraph
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Enoch Chihana explained that his father, a citizen of Malawi, had been arrested by political opponents. Could Mrs. Kassebaum, a legislator with 18 years seniority, do anything to help? Certainly. Kassebaum, chair of the Senate's Africa Subcommittee, and her fellow Kansan, Senate majority leader Bob Dole, succeeded in suspending US aid to the African nation until Mr. Chihana's father was released.
That's clout - real political power, developed only through dogged service in the trenches of Capitol Hill. And it's clout that Kansas - as well as Texas, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and other states where senior lawmakers are retiring - may now stand to lose.
Voters in these states will have less ability to shape federal policy and may expect fewer Uncle Sam financed projects. In states whose delegations are rising in stature, primarily in the South and West, the reverse may be true.
Not that a powerful delegation can now pave states with gold. As budgets tighten in Washington, lawmakers have more difficulty justifying special outlays. In this environment, observers say, the only states that can squeeze more out of the federal budget are the ones whose lawmakers make it their guiding mission.
"Part of the patronage game is being in the right place, on the right committees," says Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota. "The states that do well are the ones that have legislators willing to play that game."
By all measures, a prominent congressional delegation like the one from Kansas can do wonders for its constituents. When officials at the Veterans Administration, for instance, refused to allow the state to build a highway extension on land it owned near Topeka, a few telephone calls from Senator Dole's office helped changed their minds.
During House debates about the farm bill this year, Kansas Rep. Pat Roberts (R) won a clear victory for his home state. Mr. Roberts, the bill's chief architect, preserved the Conservation Reserve Program, whose biggest beneficiary is Kansas.
But the Kansas congressional delegation may be much less powerful at this time next year. Four of its most prominent members are retiring: Dole and Kassebaum, and Roberts and Rep. Jan Meyers (R), chair of the House Small Business Committee. Roberts is quitting to run for Kassebaum's seat, but even if he wins he'll only be one of many freshmen senators. The loss of 73 years of accumulated power is so daunting to some in the state that calls are arising for Kassebaum to reconsider.
Texas may face an even larger power vacuum. The Lone Star state is losing 125 years of accumulated congressional seniority through House retirements. Pennsylvania is losing two of the state's four committee chairman: Rep. Robert Walker (R) of Science, and Rep. William Clinger (R) of Government Reform. By year's end, Oregon will have lost two of the most senior GOP senators around: Finance chair Sen. Bob Packwood, and Appropriations chair Sen. Mark Hatfield.
WHAT, exactly, will these states be losing? Again, consider the case of Kansas. According to a study by the Washington-based group Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW), the Kansas delegation brings home a lot of pork-barrel projects. An analysis of the amount of narrowly focused appropriations, or "pork," each state gets per capita showed Kansas's tally was the ninth highest.
Yet pork-barreling may not be the most important measure of clout. Each year, New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D) tabulates the total amount of federal dollars each state receives and compares it with the amount of tax revenue each state provides the federal government. Some states like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois give more than they receive. Others, like Alaska, New Mexico, Mississippi, and North Dakota are heavily subsidized.
But states that get lots from Uncle Sam by this measure don't necessarily also get lots of traditional pork money. New Mexico, Mississippi, North Dakota, Louisiana, and Montana do not rank among the biggest receivers of pork dollars, for instance, but they all benefit heavily from their fiscal relationships with the federal government.
Many of these states have sagging economies, low wage scales, and a relatively high number of people who qualify for government assistance.
Still, congressional clout can play a role in determining how these monies are allocated to states. One example is Alaska. Since 1984, it has shot up 28 places in Moynihan's rankings, to sixth overall. Likewise, it holds down the No. 2 spot on the CAGW pork chart.
Mr. Penny says this is a direct result of the state's veteran congressional delegation, whose members he calls "shameless" in their desire to bring money back to the district.
"Powerful members can work the formulas to their state's advantage," Penny says. "That's where you see the bigger dollar movements.''