A Surge in Clout Along the Gulf Coast

Posted May 3, 2013 at 5:14pm

Gauging congressional clout is arguably an enterprise that falls somewhere between happy hour argument and inexact science. But it’s happening almost constantly on Capitol Hill. Roll Call has tried to help the conversation along for many years now by taking objective stock of every delegation’s potential sway in each of the past dozen Congresses.

The latest iteration of the Roll Call Clout Index is now complete, and the story of how power has shifted in the 113th Congress is clear: The states that anchor the Gulf Coast have much more stroke than ever before. Play this nifty interactive graphic to see why.

The behemoth California delegation readily emerges as, by far, the most powerful of them all — just as it did two years ago, a decade ago and when the index was first created in 1990.

But the three states with the next highest scores all have beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.

Texas, which has grown to have easily the second-largest delegation at the Capitol, maintains its perennial hold on one of the top three spots. But third-most-populous Florida has advanced from sixth place to second since 2011. And Louisiana, even after losing a House seat this year because of post-Hurricane Katrina population losses, has not only broken into the top 10 for the first time but has surged all the way to No. 4.

Beyond that, the analysis found the two other states along the Gulf punching well above their weight. The delegation from Mississippi, at 31st in population, nonetheless got the 15th highest clout score, barely edging 23rd-most-populous Alabama.

Taken together, the numbers are a powerful signal that the region is better positioned than ever before to get what it wants out of Congress the next time a natural disaster strikes. Its lawmakers will have an easier time triumphing over the budget-cutting conservative sentiments in the House that so famously slowed the delivery of the Superstorm Sandy federal relief package to the Northeast for a dozen weeks.

(That said, the New York delegation maintained its constant hold on a spot in the top five, and New Jersey re-entered the top 10 after a long absence.)

Roll Call’s weighted formula for assessing each state’s measure of potential influence in Congress takes into account the size of its delegation, the number of lawmakers in the majority caucuses, the delegation’s collective Senate and House seniority, whether any top leaders hail from the state, its ranks of committee chairmen and ranking minority party members, its assignments to the most influential committees and the amount of federal spending per capita in the state.

It will be tough to depose the California delegation, which represents 1 in 8 Americans, from its top spot under that rubric. Even though there are 14 freshmen from the state — the result of an incumbent-neutral redistricting and a new jungle primary election system — the delegation began the year with a combined 325 terms under its belt in the House and more collective Senate seniority than all but two other states.

Members of the California delegation chair six different committees, hold ranking minority seats on four others, have 17 spots on the exclusive panels and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra claim three top House leadership positions.

The only thing holding California’s score down is a middle-of-the-pack $7,600 in per capita spending in fiscal 2011, according to the most recent data available from the Census Bureau.

It was on that front that all the Gulf Coast states did particularly well, because of a combination of factors including government contracting, the presence of federal agency outposts and property, and one-time infusions of federal assistance.

The numbers show that, even at a time when the practice of earmarking has come close to eradication from the congressional culture, the relative dollars allocated among the states varies enormously. And, whether through legislative sleight-of-hand or advocacy in the shadows, members of Congress still have a decent amount of influence at the margins for steering cash toward home.

And this is where Florida and Louisiana both lapped the field in the current study. The government spent $30,500 for each person in both of those states two years ago, 60 percent more than the state that did third best (Hawaii, at $18,200) in the balance of payments calculation.

Florida looks to have put its delegation size and bipartisan nature to relatively good use, though its clout would be far less without that giant federal spending number. Its 29 members hold a modest three gavels, including the pair that Republicans C.W. Bill Young and Ander Crenshaw wield on still-influential House Appropriations subcommittees, and only nine seats altogether on the exclusive committees.

The Louisiana story is more illustrative of how a relatively small state can throw considerable weight around the Capitol if the delegation plays the internal politics right.

Approaching the end of her third term, Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu has claimed the gavel of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee, and her Senate colleague David Vitter, after less than two terms, is the top Republican on Environment and Public Works. Having a lopsidedly Republican delegation in the GOP House has helped four of the state’s six congressmen secure seats on the most influential committees, the ones that have the most to do with helping the state’s oil and gas economy: Appropriations, Ways and Means, and Energy and Commerce.

It’s little surprise the delegation has entered the ranks of those with the most built-in clout. For Landrieu especially, who’s in line to claim the Energy and Natural Resources chairmanship in two years, it will be no surprise when these lawmakers run in 2014 with the pitch that an ant-incumbent mood is not in the voters’ enlightened self-interest.