The behind-the-scenes jockeying this month for a spot on the House's most coveted committee was intense. But the spoils of power aren't what they used to be, and even the sophomore lawmaker who ultimately claimed the late Rep. John Murtha's (D-Pa.) seat on the Appropriations Committee says he's not counting on his new stature to ensure victory in November.
Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), who squeaked into office in 2006 in a district that twice voted for George W. Bush, acknowledged that being one of the Democrats who doles out the bacon back home could be a double-edged sword, providing fodder for Republicans looking to oust him in what Democrats fear is shaping up to be an anti-incumbent, anti-Washington midterm election.
"They'll try to do everything they can," he said. "They'll throw everything but the kitchen sink at us."
Murphy — who beat out a field of hopefuls, several more senior than he, for the post — said he still hoped his new committee assignment would give him "a platform for bringing health back to the district and cutting wasteful spending." Implicit in Murphy's comments, however, is a sensitivity to the possibility that it could be dangerous in the current political climate to focus solely on funneling money home without also stressing fiscal responsibility.
Democrats in competitive races had a serious gut check last week when 14-term incumbent and senior House Appropriations Committee member Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) lost his primary election. Although ethical questions about his earmarking practices were a major issue in Mollohan's race, the loss — which came on the heels of Sen. Bob Bennett's (R-Utah) primary ouster May 8 — drove home for many lawmakers the very real danger of voters taking their angst against Washington out on its most entrenched legislators. Vulnerable Democrats' skittishness likely will escalate this week if either of the two Democratic Senators facing serious primary challenges today — Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Arlen Specter (Pa.) — don't come out on top. Not since 1980 has more than one sitting Senator been defeated in a primary in a single campaign cycle.
The fact that both Mollohan and Bennett are appropriators, the most plum committee assignment of all, also underscored for vulnerable Democrats that a seat on a powerful committee such as Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce or even Appropriations might not provide much insulation this campaign cycle.
Besides Mollohan, there are a handful of other Democratic appropriators in competitive races this year, including Reps. Allen Boyd (Fla.) and Chet Edwards (Texas).
"This is about the strongest anti-incumbency I've ever seen," Boyd said, adding that he was not sure whether a slot in the Appropriations Committee would gain much ground for him with voters.
"There may be for some people, but to others it doesn't matter," said Boyd, a former leader of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition who faces a primary challenge in August from former state Senate Minority Leader Al Lawson.
Because they are in the minority, Republicans think an anti-incumbent sentiment will bolster their hopes of taking back the House, or at least cutting Democrats' margin of rule. They say they think a seat on a major committee — by virtue of the fact that it provides a direct link to major bills — will turn out to be a liability for some Democrats in November.
"It's very clear to me that the one-party rule has caused this party — and the people who vote for it — to be suspect by many, many Americans," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Rep. Pete Sessions (Texas) said. "Those who sustain that agenda will not be able to go around the country and to tout their successes. ... We're going to give them credit for their agenda."
Democrats' agenda has included votes on health care and climate change, both of which went through the Energy and Commerce Committee. The Ways and Means panel also considered the health care bill, repeal of which is at the center of some Republican candidates' platforms.
Still, many Democrats, including Murphy and Boyd, say they'd prefer to sit on a powerful committee — and perhaps draw more fire — than not. "Anytime we have a chance to be involved in issues that are profoundly important, like health care and energy, that is beneficial to my constituents," said Rep. Zack Space, an Energy and Commerce member who supported both the climate change bill the House passed in July and the original health care bill that the House passed in November.
However, the Ohio Democrat later changed his vote to "no" when the health care bill came back from the Senate in March, while Boyd — facing attacks from Lawson over his earlier opposition — switched positions to vote for it.
Space, who faces a potentially tough path to a third term in a district that Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) won in 2008, added: "If the only focus I had was on my political future, that'd be a little different. But it's not. I'm trying to make an impact in a positive way back home, and these committees give me the avenue to do that. ... It's no secret that there's a lot of resentment right now towards the institution of Congress. ... But the bottom line is if my constituents feel that I'm working hard for them and my intentions are well-placed ... then they'll send me back."
Democratic leaders, for their part, disputed the notion that high-profile committee assignments might in any way hinder their colleagues' efforts to keep their seats.
"I don't think there's any difference in the stature or ability for Members to deliver on the high-profile committees this session differently from any other session," said Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's vice chairwoman for incumbent retention.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed Mollohan's and Bennett's losses as local aberrations but acknowledged that incumbency brings challenges this campaign cycle.
"There's no question there is at this moment an anti-incumbent mood," Pelosi told reporters late last week. "But I have confidence that my Members know how to speak and communicate with their districts, and I wouldn't tell them to do anything less than work as hard as they possibly can, assume nothing, but don't be dragged down by assumptions that may or may not apply to them."
Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), who is in line to replace retiring Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), also downplayed the idea that Mollohan's loss signified diminishing draw of the panel.
"It's all on a Member-by-Member basis," Dicks said. "I think they evaluate everybody in an election context based on their record."
Dicks pointed to the recent jockeying to replace Murtha as evidence that a spot on Appropriations is still a highly prized trophy.
"There wasn't a shortfall of Members trying to get on Appropriations," Dicks said.