Wielding clout in lean times

With budgets tight, Md. delegation focuses on Bay, BRAC, transportation

January 17, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- The good news for Maryland: With the House majority leader, a senior Senate appropriator and the head of the House Democratic campaign committee in Washington, the state seldom has wielded so much clout.

The less good news: Maryland's enhanced power comes just as tight budgets and new rules on pork-barrel politics could limit the ability of its congressional delegation to deliver federal money to the state.

"I don't think the spigots are going to be opened in the next fiscal year," said William A. Galston, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "As the reality of paying for Iraq with an honest budget, paying for an expanded military and a lot of other things sinks in, bringing home a lot of domestic bacon is going to be hard."

Still, its members say, the Democratic takeover of Congress means the state's delegation is better positioned to bring federal attention to such local needs as improving transportation links between Baltimore and Washington, building the infrastructure to absorb new military personnel and protecting the Chesapeake Bay. Eight members of the state's 10-member delegation are now in the majority, up from two when Republicans were in charge in Washington.

"I think you're going to see dramatic changes," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Democrat who spent the last dozen years as a minority House member. "Being in the majority and having the majority leader come from the state, having Senator [Barbara] Mikulski in a much more visible position ... all that's going to make it a lot more effective for our delegation carrying out policy."

Maryland enjoys an unusual concentration of members in high places: As majority leader, Steny H. Hoyer of Southern Maryland is the second-ranking member of the House. The elevation of Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County to chair the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Hoyer said, "gives Maryland a second voice at the leadership table."

Mikulski, the dean of the Senate's 16 women, chairs an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending for the Justice and Commerce departments, the Small Business Administration, NASA, the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies. Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Baltimore County has taken Hoyer's seat on the House Appropriations committee, and Van Hollen has replaced Cardin on the tax-writing Ways and Means panel.

And that's not even counting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The California congresswoman, daughter of former Mayor Thomas D'Alessandro Jr., refers regularly to her Baltimore roots - as when she returned this month to Little Italy, where the block where she grew up was renamed for her.

"Maryland is very well represented," she said, and included herself among the state's supporters.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, Republican of Western Maryland, may be the only conservative in Congress who is enthusiastic about her new role.

"I'm very pleased that the new speaker is a Maryland girl," he said.

Mikulski, who, as the state's senior senator chairs the delegation, lists three Maryland priorities in the new congressional session: making sure the Washington-Baltimore corridor is treated as a high-risk area for homeland security spending, safeguarding the Chesapeake Bay and helping the state absorb the tens of thousands of new residents expected under the Pentagon's military base realignment.

On the last of these, Mikulski has asked the director of the White House budget office for a cash infusion to help fund school construction projects. The arrival of 40,000 to 60,000 new jobs associated with the base realignment over the next five years is also expected to require new highway and transit projects and water and sewer upgrades.

In separate interviews, Democrat Mikulski and Republican Bartlett described a tradition of bipartisan cooperation on state issues.

"We look at what are the goals we want to accomplish, and who has the levers of power, and regardless of which party was in power ... how we could all do whatever we could to advance a Maryland agenda," Mikulski said.

The new Congress is operating in what is expected to be a time of tighter budgets.

Democratic leaders are stripping earmarks - funding requests submitted by members for projects in the communities they represent - out of the measure that will set government spending until Oct. 1.

The House last week passed rules that would publicize the author, purpose and size of any earmark. The Senate now is grappling with earmark reform, with Republicans and some Democrats pushing for a Senate version of the strict House rules.

David Williams, vice president of policy at Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonprofit group based in Washington, says those conditions are likely to restrain Maryland members - for the time being.

"But when you are the majority party and you have people in key committees such as Appropriations and Ways and Means, and you have Steny Hoyer with his new position, it really is going to impact Maryland with stronger representation," he said.

"That could potentially mean more money going into Maryland in the coming years, once we get past the [earmark] moratorium."

Bartlett described his approach to bringing federal funds home.

"I'm a very strong conservative," he said. "But after I've fought to reduce spending, they spend it anyway. Then I'll fight to get all of it for Maryland."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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