When Rookies Take Over

Posted September 29, 2004 at 6:32pm

This fall, Louisiana and South Carolina will bid farewell to some old hands in their Congressional delegations. And when they do, each state’s Congressional seniority will be in for a serious hit.

In Louisiana, four lawmakers are either retiring or seeking higher office, including three-term Sen. John Breaux (D) and 13-term Rep. Billy Tauzin (R). And just two years after losing Senate-longevity champion Strom Thurmond (R), South Carolina will say goodbye to six-term Sen. Ernest Hollings (D).

Mathematically, the impacts will be stark. Louisiana will see its accumulated seniority fall from more than 113 years to just 58. And in just four years’ time, South Carolina will have seen its seniority drop from 148 years to a mere 45. (See chart for complete figures.)

The departures will remove more than just accumulated tenure. Breaux is known as a master deal-maker who’s trusted by leaders in both parties. Tauzin, recently as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, has wielded vast influence. And Hollings is both the ranking Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and a member of the Appropriations panel, which doles out billions of dollars every year.

Even the junior Members who are vacating their House seats hold key committee spots. Reps. Chris John (D-La.) and David Vitter (R-La.) — both of whom are running to succeed Breaux in the Senate — will vacate spots on Energy and Commerce, and Appropriations, respectively. And Rep. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who wants to succeed Hollings, will have to give up his slot on the Transportation and Infrastructure panel.

True, Congressional seniority isn’t as important as it was when such giants as Sens. Russell Long (D-La.) or Reps. Hale and Lindy Boggs (D-La.) dominated the halls of Congress. Still, over the years, both Louisiana and South Carolina have benefited nicely from federal largess.

Indeed, the most recent state rankings for net per-capita federal spending — that is, how much more each state receives in federal spending than it sends to Washington in taxes — show that Louisiana has the nation’s 15th most favorable ratio. South Carolina has the 17th best.

One lobbyist from Arkansas, a state that ranks 13th by the same measure, said the impact of seeing his state’s seniority fall by three-quarters during the 1990s was unmistakable.

“It hurts,” the lobbyist said. If you’re a junior Member, “you don’t have the pull and you don’t know the system. You have new staff a lot of times, and they’re learning their way around, too.”

So far, analysts in Louisiana and South Carolina haven’t detected much concern among the public about the impending loss of seniority. But political insiders — and the officials who run federal facilities or projects supported by federal dollars — worry a lot.

Louisiana, for instance, depends on its military bases. It’s been estimated that 50,000 jobs in the New Orleans area alone are dependent either directly or indirectly on military spending. With base-closing on the Congressional agenda once again, such Louisiana facilities as the Belle Chasse Naval Station could find themselves on the chopping block.

Also potentially endangered is federal funding to combat coastal erosion and beef up the state’s highway network — a serious issue for low-lying areas of Louisiana. The levees and drainage infrastructure required to fix the problem suggest a price tag that “will have to be in the billions,” said state Rep. Charlie Lancaster (R). “And we don’t talk billions in the state Legislature.”

South Carolina, too, depends on the federal government for major military and transportation projects.

Over the years, Hollings (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Thurmond) bolstered the state’s economy by getting the federal government to locate major facilities in South Carolina. Federal funding for human services, from Medicaid to housing, has also become an issue for South Carolina. Ever since fiscally conservative ex-Rep. Mark Sanford (R) won the governorship in 2002, the state has tightened its purse strings for a wide range of programs.

“Where state monies have shrunk, federal monies have gotten to be very important,” said University of South Carolina political scientist Blease Graham.

Arkansas’ experience in adapting to changed Congressional circumstances may prove to be a model for Louisiana and South Carolina.

One lesson is that while muscle is good, hustle can sometimes carry the day. As Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.) put it, Congress is “a big Rotary Club. You work with people and learn how to get it done. Either folks know how to do it, or they don’t.”

In Arkansas, first-term Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) has earned kudos for her work on agriculture and other matters.

Lincoln has “proven to be an effective behind-the-scenes person in Washington, and her position as a moderate Democrat means she’s often wooed by both sides,” said Bill Paschall, a Democratic consultant in Little Rock. “Obviously, you lose your seniority ranking on the committee, but you can also bring an energy that is sometimes lacking in grizzled veterans, and that can prove very favorable for the state and the delegation.”

A second lesson is that relatively junior delegations need to cooperate — first and foremost, to make sure all the key committee assignments for the state are covered.

“The key is how well people are able to situate themselves where they can do the most good,” said Rodney Baker, director of governmental affairs with the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation.

In Arkansas, Berry joined the Appropriations Committee, a crucial posting once held by former Sen. Dale Bumpers (D) and former Reps. Ray Thornton (D) and Jay Dickey (R). Rep. John Boozman (R) joined the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, just like former Rep. John Paul Hammerschmidt (R) did. And Lincoln and Rep. Mike Ross (D) followed in the footsteps of former Sen. David Pryor (D) and gravitated to their chamber’s Agriculture committee.

Chuck Culver, a former Bumpers aide who is now the director of development for the University of Arkansas’ agriculture division, said that, when lobbying, he tries to involve as many Members from his delegation as possible, rather than rely on a single “champion.”

“We didn’t want to assume that just because a project had been around for 10 years the new Members knew anything about it or felt any loyalty to it,” he said. “And they have certainly responded. I have been blown away by how effective they’ve been, considering how much seniority we gave up.”

Along the same lines, a state with low seniority needs to minimize partisan tensions.

“We tried very hard to work in a bipartisan manner, and I think we’ve been reasonably successful at doing that,” said Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.).

A third lesson is that personal connections can be leveraged to the hilt. Though Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) is just finishing only his second year in the Senate, he is applauded for building on the linkages bequeathed by his father, David Pryor.

“He absolutely got off the ground quicker” because of his connections, Paschall said. “He understands the inside game better than many more senior Members. And his dad still has tons of goodwill.”

There is evidence that Louisiana and South Carolina have already begun to follow these guidelines. In Louisiana, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D) is making the most of her slots on Appropriations, and Energy and Natural Resources. In South Carolina, Rep. John Spratt (D) exerts influence on Armed Services, while Rep. James Clyburn (D.) sits on Appropriations. First-term Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) impressed political insiders with his work on securing vital financial transfers for the state.

“His ability to deliver the goods has diminished some of the qualms about seniority,” said Graham, the political scientist.

And many of the aspiring successors for the soon-to-be-open seats are political veterans rather than anti-establishment outsiders.

In South Carolina, voters are favored to send House veteran DeMint to the Senate and former Rep. Bob Inglis (R) to reclaim his old House seat. In Louisiana, the favorite to take Vitter’s old House seat, Bobby Jindal, is young, but he’s an aggressive operator who has state-level experience and good contacts.

On the Senate side, either John or Vitter would bring House experience. John, a protégé of Breaux, has won praise for his networking skills. When he was elected to Congress, “he basically ran for senior class president,” said one Louisiana politico. “He went to the gym and played golf with people. He had nothing to do in Washington but make friends, and that’s how he got onto Energy and Commerce.”

There’s even a potential parallel in Louisiana to the Pryor dynasty: the bid by Billy Tauzin III to succeed his father. (Tauzin isn’t highlighting that connection on the campaign trail, though, for fear of a backlash against nepotism, political observers say.)

There’s one more lesson: Take the long view. Lincoln turns 44 today, and Pryor is 41.

“In my opinion, they will both have those seats as long as they want,” Snyder said. “The reality is that could be 40 or 50 years.”

Given that Lindsey Graham is 49 and Landrieu is 48, Snyder advises Louisiana and South Carolina to “fear not. Your time will come.”