Up the Seniority Ladder

November 22, 1992

The heavy turnover in membership of the House of Representatives next January will move surviving Democratic members of the Maryland delegation up the ladder to positions that will enhance the state's clout in Washington. With greater seniority, they could lay claim to seats on key committees, where the real work in Congress gets done.

Most notable will be Rep. Steny H. Hoyer's expected selection as chairman of one of the Appropriations Committee's 13 subcommittees. These appropriations barons are known on the Hill as the "college of cardinals," a tribute to the power they wield as the dispensers of money, not just to government agencies but for pet projects of fellow members. In a chamber where mutual back-scratching makes the machinery turn, that is clout indeed. And Mr. Hoyer, already a key figure in the House leadership as chairman of the Democratic Caucus, knows how to use it for the state's benefit.

Not yet a member of the House leadership but remarkably close to it as a relative newcomer, Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin jumps an astonishing nine steps on the seniority ladder in the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. After only one term on the committee, he will be in the middle rank and a key figure in the drafting of a new health-care policy, a Clinton administration priority. He also is accorded a good shot at a seat on the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, a fulcrum for influence on all sorts of issues.

Another member of middling seniority, Rep. Kweisi Mfume, has a good chance of becoming chairman of the Black Caucus, which will have a far more powerful voice in Washington than ever before, as well as higher status on the Banking, Finance and Urban Affairs Committee.

On the Senate side, Sen. Barbara Mikulski seems a likely addition to the Senate leadership as an assistant whip, the first rung on the power ladder. She's already a member of the Appropriations Committee and heads an important subcommittee on space, housing and urban programs. As the most prominent member of the enlarged contingent of women (( senators, she will be a key figure. Sen. Paul Sarbanes is likely to chair a subcommittee focusing on housing and urban affairs issues, which could become a forum for Maryland interests and Clinton administration initiatives.

While these considerations may not conform to the civics textbook conception of Congress, seniority and the ability to influence legislation go hand in hand. It ought not be used as an argument for retaining a legislator who is otherwise undeserving of support, but it is a factor that should be carefully weighed by voters tempted to impose artificial limits on officials' terms in office.

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