Morella and Gilchrest savor new-found power

January 08, 1995|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Two Republican House members from Maryland laid their hands on the actual levers that help turn the great machine of government for the first time last week. Both declared they liked the feeling.

Power, in modest proportion, came to Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest from the Eastern Shore and Constance A. Morella from Montgomery County. He assumed control over the Public Buildings and Economic Development Subcommittee. She took charge of the Technology Subcommittee.

They are the only Marylanders to chair either a committee or subcommittee in the new Congress. Their duties will involve them in efforts to find solutions to some of the more crucial problems facing the U.S. economy and society.

The extent of their influence, however, will depend on whether or not they can avoid having their subcommittees' jurisdictions reduced by their party's determination to downsize the federal government.

Mr. Gilchrest -- whose district sprawls through 10 counties of the state, from Cecil in the north to Somerset in the south, takes in part of Anne Arundel and a sliver of Baltimore City -- got his call near Christmas while traveling to Salisbury.

The car phone, almost never plugged in, "rang and nearly ran me off the road," Mr. Gilchrest said. It was Rep. Bud Shuster of Pennsylvania, the new Republican chairman of the committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, offering Mr. Gilchrest the chairmanship of the new subcommittee.

Both of the subcommittee's missions appealed to the three-term congressman from Kennedyville, in Kent County. One of these is the responsibility for overseeing the General Services Administration, which maintains, acquires and disposes of all federal property.

"We have a lot of areas in our district that will be affected by this subcommittee," said Mr. Gilchrest. These include the former Bainbridge Naval Air Station in Cecil County and federal storage facilities in Anne Arundel, among others.

But the congressman indicated broader interests, which chairmanship of the subcommittee should allow him to satisfy.

"I want to find out what the federal government owns in the United States, and even in foreign countries. I want to take an inventory and learn what we do with those buildings and grounds," he said. "If there is a building somewhere being unused, what can we do with it? Can we sell it? Can we use it for a day care center? Can we use it to train inner-city kids? Perhaps some of these buildings can be sold to the private sector."

The other mission of the Gilchrest subcommittee offers a greater range for policy creativity. It is to oversee the Economic Development Agency in the Department of Commerce, operating since 1965.

nTC The EDA's purpose is to help distressed areas grow by stimulating job creation. It does this by providing grants for roads, rail spurs, sewerage, water lines and other infrastructure items that attract job-producing industries.

In more recent years it has helped communities adjust to economic dislocations, such as those brought by the closing of military bases and defense cutbacks. These things are not unknown in Mr. Gilchrest's district and other parts of Maryland.

A $3 million grant is about to pop out of the EDA pipeline to help the Grumman defense plant in Salisbury retool for production in the private sector.

"If the Grumman grant works, and the factory employs people, we get back much more than we put out," said Mr. Gilchrest, endorsing the idea behind EDA.

There is one problem. EDA, which disposes of between $300 million and $400 million a year in grants, was spawned by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It is a likely target for Republican cost-cutters.

"My impression is, I'd like to hold on to it," said Mr. Gilchrest. "I'd like to make it as useful as possible by injecting other creative things into it." He suggested grants to encourage tourism in the lower Eastern Shore, or finding new ways to expand on existing economic successes, such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Fifth-term Congresswoman Morella, whose district is contained within affluent Montgomery County, said her new Technology Subcommittee will deal with a "vast" number of complicated issues. Among them is the process of technology transfer -- from this country to others, and from federal laboratories out into private industry.

As a subcommittee of the Science Committee, headed by Rep. Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania who is one of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's closest friends, the Technology Subcommittee would examine strategies for reviving industries in the Rust Belt, ways to make U.S. firms more competitive abroad.

The Technology Subcommittee will have jurisdiction on legislation governing intellectual property, copyrights. The latter are at the heart of the current trade dispute between the United States and China.

"This is what I wanted. It's pretty exciting," said Mrs. Morella. "I wanted it for a number of reasons. It fits into my district so well."

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