When GOP Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri turned over his chairmanship of a subcommittee on appropriations to Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, he joked that he didn't think it would make much of a difference. "I've always said that one of my top priorities is cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay," he quipped.
The remark drew laughs, but it also hit on a basic truth: The senators who control the gavels have the power to advance not only their party's agenda, but also their state's.
Significantly, now that the Senate is in Democratic hands, the states that may be about to benefit lie well to the north of those that would have profited under GOP control. Consider the change in majority leaders: Trent Lott, a Mississippian, has been replaced by Tom Daschle, a South Dakotan. And Republican chairmen from states like Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Texas have been replaced by members who hail from Michigan, Connecticut, Delaware, and Maryland.
The pattern is reminiscent of the 2000 electoral map, which saw vast areas of the South and West go for George W. Bush, while most of the Northeast and upper Midwest chose Al Gore. The blue and red divisions represent ideological differences between the parties, of course, but these are often linked to regional concerns. And as the new chairmen take up issues ranging from energy policy to urban renewal, northern states are likely to see a greater share of the benefits.
"Most of the discussion to date has focused on just the partisan shift and the ability for Democrats to raise issues that they find attractive. But the regional shift is also important," says Richard Munson, executive director of the Northeast Midwest Institute here. Specifically, the new chairmen "have the capacity to highlight programs that are of particular importance to their region."
The shift in power from the Sun Belt to the Frost Belt is especially significant, because for years, the South has held a disproportionate share of committee chairs. In the decades following World War II, much of the South was solidly Democratic, allowing many lawmakers to hold their seats unopposed, year after year. Their seniority translated into power in Congress, even after some of those members became out of sync with their party's positions. From 1956 to 1978, for example, Democratic Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi battled tirelessly against civil rights bills as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
In 1973, the chairs of the most powerful committees in both houses of Congress - Appropriations, Finance, and Armed Services - were all held by Democrats from four Southern states: Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. In 1994, the last time Democrats controlled the Senate, eight of the 17 committee chairmen were from the South.
"If you look at the trends over time, they're really quite stunning," says Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of Southern California. When Republicans took over the Senate in 1995, they did so from a familiar power base - the South. "This reflects a national shift that's taken place over the past 50 years, and quite a remarkable change in regional bases for the parties - they've exchanged them."
One result of the South's continual hegemony in Congress has been a greater share of federal dollars for Southern states. In particular, lawmakers have directed a large portion of defense spending to the region, using military bases as a way of bringing in resources.
But now, with Michigan Sen. Carl Levin taking over the Armed Services Committee, that pattern may change. Although it's unlikely to lead to new installations up North, says Mr. Munson, there might be more willingness for a new round of base closings. "If that happens, it's more likely that bases will close in the South and California, because there are more of them there," he says.
There may also be a noticeable shift in the priorities of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes has a strong interest in urban development programs - unlike his predecessor, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm.
But the biggest impact, experts agree, may be on energy policy. "You can imagine that energy policy would be treated somewhat differently between a producing state and a consuming state," says Professor Jacobson. The top energy-producing states are in the South and West, while most Northeastern states import their energy.
As a result, the administration's energy plan, with its emphasis on extraction, will likely face greater opposition from the new chairmen, whose states' priorities lean more toward conservation and consumer protection measures.
Munson sees federal programs such as LIHEAP (Low Income Energy Assistance Program), which helps low-income families heat and cool their homes, as more likely to continue under the Democrats. "Southerners never really liked this program," he says. "But now ... there's a lot of committee chairmen from cold-weather states that like this program a lot."
Of course, not everything will change. The new chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, has long been known for his ability to earmark money for his state - much like his predecessor, Sen. Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.
In fact, when it comes to pork-barrel projects, any senator sitting on the Appropriations Committee can do well, says Sean Rushton, a spokesman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group here. That committee "is really where the pork gets inserted, and that's very bipartisan."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor