If the Democrats regain control of the House the Massachusetts delegation will be big winners

Could 12 long years in exile finally be coming to an end for congressional Democrats? Some of the most respected prognosticators in Washington are saying this could be the year the Democrats take back the House of Representatives, which they lost in the Republican revolution of 1994.

If that were to happen, the all-Democratic Massachusetts delegation would be among the biggest winners. For a decade, since the last two Republicans—Peter Blute and Peter Torkildsen—lost their seats, the Bay State’s 10 US representatives have been, relatively speaking, relegated to the congressional woodshed. House rules give the majority almost complete control as long as it votes as a bloc, which the disciplined Republicans have largely done. That’s left Massachusetts with a full House delegation of legislative Lilliputians who have little influence over the body’s agenda—and who depend on the largesse of GOP committee chairmen for budgetary earmarks that pay for critical projects back home.

For a delegation that for years claimed the most powerful man in the House, during Tip O’Neill’s run as Speaker in the late 1970s and early ’80s, it’s been a steep fall from grace. But biding their time may soon pay off. Given the importance placed on seniority in assigning committee chairmanships, Massachusetts’s long-suffering congressmen will be in line for a major role in a Democratic House of Representatives.

“No group of [Massachusetts] Democrats in the last several generations has had to serve 12 years in the minority,” says Ed Markey, the Malden Democrat who was first elected in 1976 and is now dean of the state’s House delegation. “But when we get back, these Democrats will resemble in composition and power that which was characteristic of those previous generations.”

In interviews, Markey and five other members of the delegation predict that Republican control will come to an end this year. Their projections of a House take-back are self-serving, to be sure, but prospects of a Democratic majority have also been touted by respected pundits like Charlie Cook of National Journal and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution.

“By virtually any measure, the Republican Party’s national poll numbers are at least as bad as Democrats’ were before their 1994 debacle,” Cook wrote over the summer.

A few caveats are in order. After years of gerrymandering aimed at keeping seats safe for incumbents, only about 30 of 435 House seats are considered competitive, and Democrats need a net gain of 15 to regain control.

But even if the Democrats do pull off a coup, will Markey’s assurances of muscular leadership from the state’s delegation be true? That may be even harder to prove. Five of the 10 members—John Tierney, Jim McGovern, Michael Capuano, William Delahunt, and Stephen Lynch—have never spent even a day in Congress in the majority (apart from McGovern’s years as an aide to then-House Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley). Can they make the transition from years as liberal backbenchers to become effective power-wielders?

“They’ve never known the big gravy train that went from Washington to Boston, and more broadly from Boston to Austin,” says Tufts University political scientist Jeffrey Berry, referring to O’Neill’s House reign, when Democrats also dominated the South.

Berry expects that a shift in power will probably yield only marginal financial benefit for the Bay State, especially since the Democrats would be assuming control in a tight budget environment and a national backlash against earmarking, which is often decried as “pork.”

“Where I would see some real advantage would be to the visibility and career prospects of some of the Massachusetts members of the House,” Berry says. Many of them are clearly thinking about higher office. Several members—Markey, Martin Meehan, and Barney Frank most prominently—were gearing up to run for John Kerry’s Senate seat if he had defeated President Bush in 2004, and if Kerry were to mount a second run for the White House in 2008, which he shows some signs of considering, he would likely have to forego running for reelection to do so. In addition, with Ted Kennedy turning 75 next year, the state’s other US Senate seat may be up for grabs before long.

And they are ready, financially speaking. As of August 30, six members had $1 million or more in the bank: Lynch ($1 million), Tierney ($1.2 million), Richard Neal ($1.4 million), Delahunt ($1.8 million), Markey ($2.4 million), and Meehan ($4.9 million). With none of these incumbents facing serious opposition, Berry says the cash they have reflects just one thing: ambition. Assuming powerful committee chairmanships, he says, will only stoke the fund-raising race.

Take Newton’s Barney Frank. If Democrats take control, he is in position to take over chairmanship of the powerful House Financial Services Committee, a possibility that has not gone unnoticed by those who dole out campaign cash. “I’ve gotten a lot of friends this year, and I haven’t gotten any nicer,” says Frank, suggesting that Washington lobbyists are starting to hedge their bets.

Half of the delegation has never been in the majority.

Indeed, the seniority accrued by Bay State congressmen would be their chief source of power in a Democratic House, for the benefit of the Commonwealth as well as their own ambitions. “We have a very senior delegation, and each member of our delegation will be extremely well positioned on the key committees in Congress,” says Markey. Meehan, for example, is on Armed Services, which will be a prime venue for critical questions of Defense Department officials and oversight of the Iraq war should Democrats regain control. John Olver is the state’s representative on the Appropriations Committee, which controls spending bills, and thus earmarks. Capuano sits on the Transpor tation panel, which determines how billions in road and bridge funding are spent, and Neal sits on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

So much for power; what about policy? Even while in the minority, some members of the Bay State delegation have burnished their reputations for bill writing, while others have been content to serve as backbench bomb-throwers. Berry expects that those focused on legislation will do best in the majority, since they’ve put in the time developing relationships on both sides of the aisle, which will be crucial in moving bills not only through the House but also in the (presumably) still-Republican Senate.

None is in a better position than Markey, who has been one of the most influential Democrats in the House from his perch as ranking member of the Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. If he were in the majority, Markey says, he would focus on forcing telecommunications companies to build networks in lower-income areas, and continue his crusade for “net neutrality,” which would require Internet service providers to offer the same speed of accessibility to users of any Web site. In addition, Markey would push for higher fuel-efficiency standards in automobiles from his seat on the House Resources Committee, and, from his Homeland Security Committee seat, for tighter rules on airline cargo inspections.

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Shawn Zeller

Washington Correspondent
Meanwhile, Frank is talking about federal subsidies for new housing, community development block grants, and Amtrak if he takes over at the Financial Services Committee. McGovern—who would be the second ranking Democrat on the Rules Committee, which holds sway over which bills are considered on the House floor—wants to push for universal health care and a boost in the minimum wage. But McGovern is one of the most liberal members of the House, so a return to Democratic control would hardly guarantee traction for every issue dear to his heart.

Still, it would certainly improve his life on the Rules Committee, where, McGovern says, Republicans often refuse to give the Democratic position the light of day. A case in point, he says, was last summer’s minimum wage fight. Republicans combined a proposed increase in the federal minimum wage—from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour—with a cut in the estate tax. They then forced the package through the House, despite Democratic members’ objections that the tax cut should be considered separately. Though the bill eventually died in the Senate, to McGovern it was evidence of the clout of the majority party. “When you are in the majority, you can control the agenda,” he says. “You cannot always ensure victory, but at least your point of view can be debated and heard.”