Greenbaum: Massachusetts Pols’ Ambitions May Collide

Posted July 19, 2010 at 4:24pm

Rep. Richard Neal’s decision to run for a high-level House chairmanship illustrates the growing clout of Massachusetts on Capitol Hill, but it could also create unusual divisions within the state’s Congressional delegation. 

[IMGCAP(1)]The Bay State Democrat’s bid to become Ways and Means chairman is potentially problematic because with Rep. Jim McGovern (D) close to heading another powerful committee and Rep. Barney Frank (D) already chairing a panel, it is unlikely that the House would allow so many committees to be headed by Members from Massachusetts. Neal’s ambitions could therefore stymie those of McGovern and put Massachusetts Members in the uncomfortable position of supporting one colleague over another.

A Massachusetts Representative has not chaired one of the “big four” committees — Appropriations, Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Rules — since the late Joe Moakley (D) topped the Rules Committee from 1989 to 1995. Frank now leads the Financial Services Committee, which is in charge of banking issues. Assuming Democrats retain control of the House, Massachusetts is poised to have one of its own again chairing a top committee.

The liberal McGovern is an obvious name to consider. As vice chairman of Rules, McGovern is set to chair the committee his old boss Moakley once led whenever Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the 80-year-old chairwoman, decides to retire, perhaps as early as 2012.

While Rules does not disperse pork or any special perks, its control by McGovern would give Massachusetts more authority in Congress and another seat at the House leadership table. However, despite being next in line, McGovern’s ascension may be affected by Neal’s more immediate moves. Neal is a senior member of Ways and Means, whose chairman, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), was forced to step down earlier this year amid a plethora of ethical questions and is unlikely to take back the job. Neal wants the post and is primed to challenge the 78-year-old interim chairman, Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.).

McGovern has spoken cheerily in support of Neal’s candidacy, but it should make him nervous. While it is not against any law or party rules, it is unlikely that House Democrats would allow three committees to be chaired by Massachusetts Members at the same time — especially if two of them are elite committees. It would concentrate too much power in a medium-sized state. This is particularly true given that every member of Massachusetts’ 10-person House delegation but one chairs either a full committee or a subcommittee. Furthermore, Democrats from more moderate states and regions would be apprehensive to give three liberal Bay State Representatives such high-profile posts.

If Neal wins the Ways and Means post, it would likely block McGovern from leading the Rules Committee in 2012 or later, regardless of whether Frank continues leading his own panel. As seniority goes, Neal was elected to Congress eight years before McGovern, but McGovern is next in line to head the Rules Committee, while Neal sits behind two more senior Members on Ways and Means. 

This leaves Massachusetts House Democrats in a sticky situation and may force the delegation to collectively tell one of the men to stand down. But determining who is difficult to say, particularly among close political friends. And this doesn’t even consider the dean of the delegation, Rep. Ed Markey (D), who is near the top of the most powerful committee in Congress: Energy and Commerce. Having too much clout is a nice problem to have but one the delegation would probably just as soon avoid.

Barring the remote possibility of Markey moving up, Massachusetts would hold greater influence if Neal chaired Ways and Means than if McGovern led Rules, as matters of Congressional procedure would have little practical impact on the state. So, if Neal amasses the votes to win, the delegation should whole-heartedly back him, even if it comes at McGovern’s expense. With McGovern able to take over Rules in 2012 at the earliest — and perhaps not even then — Neal’s chairmanship would be far more valuable. 

Nonetheless, Neal will face an uphill battle to win, as Levin is highly respected in the Caucus. Plus, the Midwest region remains electorally critical to national Democrats, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) may be apprehensive to sacrifice one of its remaining power players so soon after her close ally Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) supplanted another senior Michigan chairman, Rep. John Dingell (D), at Energy and Commerce in 2008. 

Of course, if Republicans win the House in November, all this will be moot. But with Democrats in shape to hold on by their fingernails and Neal intently eyeing a position he has spent decades building his career toward, Massachusetts Democrats may have an internal fight on their hands.

Mark Greenbaum is a Washington, D.C., writer and a frequent contributor to Roll Call.