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Government, Politics & Issues

Delegation's clout in D.C. waxes, wanes as GOP prepares to take over House

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 3, 2010 - WASHINGTON - From energy to health care to defense, the congressional shakeup resulting from this week's midterm elections will have considerable impact on the clout of Missouri and Illinois representatives on local and national issues in the Capitol.

In a game of musical committee chairs that follows the tune of the electorate, the new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives -- starting in early January, when the new Congress is sworn in -- means that Democrats who chair House committees or subcommittees will become "ranking minority" members; in most cases, Republicans in parallel positions will ascend to chair those panels. The formal appointments won't be made until after House Republicans elect their new leaders and form a steering committee to name committee chairs.

In the House of Representatives

Perhaps the harshest blow to the state's political influence will result from Tuesday's defeat of U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Lexington.

Missouri will lose a powerful voice in national defense issues. As chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Skelton has championed several Missouri installations -- such as Whiteman Air Force Base and Fort Leonard Wood -- and been a force on major defense issues. His replacement, Republican Vicky Hartzler, a former Missouri House member from Harrisonville, has pledged to work on military issues but will take many years to reach the seniority and clout of Skelton, who was first elected to the House in 1976.

That loss of clout on defense issues may be partially offset by the expected rise of U.S. Rep. Todd Akin, R-Town and Country, to become chairman of the Armed Services panel's Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary Forces. Although that panel  focuses mainly on Naval ships, it also plays a role in authorizing the Navy's F/A-18 E/F/G aircraft, which are assembled in St. Louis by the Boeing Corp. Last month, the Navy completed a contract for a multi-year procurement of 124 of those aircraft.

"Boeing currently makes the aircraft that are on aircraft carriers, so in that regard there is a [St. Louis] connection," Akin said Wednesday in an interview. He said that he plans to focus on that subcommittee in the new Congress. "You spend a lot of time on your own subcommittee, particularly when you are chairman."

Another member of the St. Louis regional delegation who can expect a significant increase in clout is U.S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, who is in line for either an influential subcommittee chair or possibly even the coveted chairmanship of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, a powerful panel that plays a key role in issues such as energy and health.

The current ranking Republican on that panel, U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, is technically ineligible to become chairman because of the party's term-limit rules. If Barton's appeal is rejected, Shimkus plans to contend for the chairmanship, with his likely competitors including U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. "If Joe [Barton] is not in, then I'm in," Shimkus told the Beacon on Wednesday. He is also likely to be named as a regional representative on the influential Republican steering committee.

An outspoken opponent of last year's health-care overhaul and the House-passed "cap and trade" energy legislation, Shimkus said that -- even if he does not get the chairmanship of the full Energy and Commerce Committee -- he would be in line to head one of its most influential subcommittees, possibly either energy or health. Both of those are likely to be high-profile panels next year as the House moves to repeal or at least modify the health-care overhaul and try to develop a new approach to energy.

"There will be no 'cap and trade' bill," Shimkus predicts. "But we will probably discuss energy security -- that is, ways to lessen our nation's dependence on crude oil imports, which might include more renewable energy, nuclear power or other sources."

Another Republican likely to gain influence is U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Cape Girardeau, who is in line to become chair of the House Appropriations Committee's Financial Services Subcommittee. That panel is likely to play an important role in the oversight and key initiatives related to the financial-reform legislation that Congress approved earlier this year. Emerson's staff cautioned that the final decisions on the subcommittee chairs won't be made for another few weeks.

In the Senate

The retirement of U.S. Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo. -- who has been a key minority player on the Senate Appropriations, Select Committee on Intelligence, Administration and Environment and Public Works committees -- will represent a loss of clout in many areas, considering that Bond has been attentive to Missouri interests during his many terms in the Senate.

Bond's newly elected replacement, U.S. Rep. Roy Blunt, R-Springfield, has prior experience in the House minority leadership and appears likely to be a player in the new crop of Republican Senators. Blunt has focused on tax cuts, the need to reduce federal spending, and his opposition to the energy "cap and trade" plan that he contended would increase utility rates in coal-dependent, states such as Missouri.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., the chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, issued a statement Tuesday calling Blunt a "common-sense leader who will fight to restore accountability and reduce the size of government . . . I look forward to working with Senator-elect Blunt as we fight to rein in the government's out-of-control spending and bloated bureaucracy."

With Bond's retirement, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., becomes the state's new senior senator. Because the Senate is still controlled by Democrats, albeit with a smaller majority, she emerges as perhaps the most influential Missouri legislator in Washington.

In an interview Wednesday, McCaskill said she plans to "listen to what the voters said on Election Day. It's going to make be double my efforts to trim the budget -- like most Missouri families have." Asked about Senate clout, she said: "Frankly, after yesterday's vote, I don't feel very influential at all," she said. "We got our clock cleaned. We ought to pay attention to that and listen, and maybe not focus as much on bringing home pork."

McCaskill said she was "saddened by the defeat of Ike Skelton because of what he has meant to, first, America's military and, second, to the state of Missouri -- as it relates to the strong military presence that we're proud to have in our state. It certainly will be a blow to the military institutions in Missouri when he is neither the chairman nor the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee."

McCaskill said she plans to continue using her influence as chair of the Senate Homeland Security committee's Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight to help root out problems and corruption in federal contracting.

"Contracting has ballooned out of control. The [Bush] administration wanted to give the impression that they were shrinking government, and what they were really doing is engaging in massive amounts of contracting. We need to get a handle on the money that's being spent."

In Illinois, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, is expected to retain his deputy majority leaders post in the new Congress. The  short-lived term of U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill. -- who was named to fill Barack Obama's term in the Senate -- will end as soon as the Illinois secretary of state formally certifies the election of Mark Kirk (right) as the state's new Republican U.S. senator -- probably by the end of November.

Kirk, who has represented Illinois' 10th congressional district in the northern Chicago suburbs for a decade, has served on the House Appropriations Committee and has been co-chair of the moderate GOP Tuesday Group. He campaigned on what he calls a "suburban agenda" that includes "pro-defense, pro-personal responsibility, pro-environment and pro-science" initiatives. He has pushed in the House for funding for commuter rail, improving veterans' health care and boosting aviation security.

Democrats in a GOP House

While the new Republican senators in Missouri and Illinois negotiate behind the scenes with the Senate Republican leaderships for their committee assignments in the new Congress, three House Democrats from the St. Louis region -- U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis; Russ Carnahan, D-St. Louis; and Jerry Costello, D-Belleville -- already know they will lose subcommittee chairs in the new Congress.

Clay (right), who now chairs the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census, and National Archives, told the Beacon late Tuesday that he had experience being in the House minority during his first six years in Congress, and was prepared to return to being a ranking member rather than a chairman.

"I don't like it, but I'm accustomed to it," Clay said.

On the census panel, one of Clay's major goals has been to eliminate the historical undercount of African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities from the census. He also serves on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees operations of the federal government, and the Financial Services Committee.

Carnahan will lose his chairmanship of the House Foreign Affairs panel's Subcommittee on International Organizations, Human Rights and Oversight. In that position, he had pushed for expanded use of diplomacy abroad and greater protections for troops. He is also a member of the House Science and Technology Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Meanwhile, Costello will have to give up his chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure panel's Aviation  Subcommittee, although he will become the ranking Democratic member. He had helped write several bills related to improving the nation's transportation infrastructure of our nation and research into clean-coal technologies. He is also a top Democrat on the House Science and Technology Committee.