Sarbanes’ Departure Is Dodd’s Good Fortune

Posted March 11, 2005 at 6:43pm

Sen. Paul Sarbanes’ (D-Md.) retirement not only affects Maryland’s political landscape but also opens the door for a colleague who has been waiting to head a major legislative committee for a quarter of a century.

Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd (D) is in line to become the ranking member on the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee — a powerful panel that is often overshadowed by the sexier Appropriations, Finance and Intelligence committees.

It is still 22 months before Dodd would move into the top Democratic Banking chair, but for the Connecticut Senator there is at least certainty now. A combination of his colleagues’ good health and their career paths put Dodd in his longstanding predicament.

Since he was first elected to the Senate in 1980, three Democrats: Sarbanes and Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.) have effectively blocked Dodd’s ability to wield a powerful committee gavel.

To boil it down to one thing, Dodd lacked seniority, a goal the newly minted Senator acknowledged wanting to achieve in a January 1981 New York Times interview.

“I think it’s wise, when you get on a committee, to really stick where you are, unless you are miserable,” the freshman told the newspaper after it was announced he had won a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee. And Dodd did just that. But so did Biden and Sarbanes.

Now that Sarbanes will retire, not only will Dodd take over Banking, but he is also one rung away from the option of heading the Foreign Relations panel.

“I kind of think this is part of the reason why he stuck around the Senate,” said a Democratic source with close ties to the Senate Democratic Caucus.

At one point there were rumors that Dodd would not seek a fifth term in 2004, but the Connecticut Democrat quashed that idea and won a landslide victory, capturing 66 percent of the vote.

“Because of the seniority system it is really luck of the draw whether you end up as a ranking member of a full committee,” said the Democratic source. “He had been behind Sarbanes for years. Other people who are on committees are able to move up with incredible speed.”

Those “people” range from Hawaii Sen. Daniel Akaka — who is the senior Democrat on Veterans’ Affairs — to New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, the ranking member of Energy and Natural Resources. Akaka was first appointed and went on to win his seat in 1990, while Bingaman was elected in 1982. Even Connecticut’s junior Senator, Joe Lieberman (D), who was elected in 1988, is the top Democrat on the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Still, despite his lack of committee authority, Dodd has been able to put his stamp on major policy initiatives and the political direction of his party. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee in the mid-1990s and nearly became the Minority Leader in 1994, losing to then-Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) by one vote. He even flirted with the idea of trying to succeed Daschle when the South Dakotan lost in November, but decided not to after it was clear then-Minority Whip Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had locked up a majority of votes.

And within the Capitol Hill realm, Dodd possesses great power as the ranking member of the Rules and Administration Committee, a panel with jurisdiction over everything from the assignment of Senate office space to federal elections and presidential succession. While Rules has legislative oversight — it is currently considering the subject of regulating 527s — the panel’s jurisdiction is largely viewed as focusing primarily on internal Senate matters.

“It is going to be quite a jump heading a committee with jurisdiction over meeting rooms to a committee with jurisdiction over America’s boardroom,” said a senior Senate Democratic aide.