Delegation Clout Shifts in Aftermath of Earmark Era

Jeb Hensarling's Texas and Boehner's Ohio have high rankings on the Roll Call Clout Index. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Jeb Hensarling's Texas and Boehner's Ohio have high rankings on the Roll Call Clout Index. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 22, 2015 at 5:00am

Four years after lawmakers gave up earmarking, the last of the billions once dedicated to pet projects has effectively been spent, and one result is a changed roster of states laying claim to the most clout in Congress.  

Talking smack about which delegations pack the biggest punch, and which ones are relative weaklings, has been a Hill pastime for ages. For the past 25 years, Roll Call has contributed to the conversation by making quantifiable measurements of every state’s potential sway near the star of each new Congress.  

This year, we made an important adjustment in our weighted formula by eliminating per capita federal spending in each state. That’s in part because the government’s own way of calculating the numbers has shifted, but mainly because we concluded members no longer have very much power to direct the amounts of taxpayer money that get sent back home.  

For most of the last half century, succeeding at the “bringing home the bacon” cliché was a central goal for most members. Now that it’s become forbidden to write line items granting new parochial wishes, and with the tight squeeze on domestic and defense spending a lasting reality, congressional clout is no longer accurately reflected in the federal balance of payments calculation.  

The delegations from Louisiana and Virginia, two states that have long benefited from lawmaker-sanctioned infusions of federal cash, were the only two that dropped out of the top 10 in the latest iteration of the Roll Call Clout Index.  

Louisiana’s tumble from No. 4 all the way to No. 30 was fueled by the defeat of three-term Democratic Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, who was both chairwoman of Energy and Natural Resources and a senior appropriator. The drop would surely have been even more profound without the election last summer of Rep. Steve Scalise as House Republican whip.  

As for Virginia, it slid from No. 6 to No. 21 not only because the calculations excluded the billions spent in the state on military bases and defense contracts, but also because of the departures of three influential members. Eric Cantor was House majority leader when he lost in the GOP primary, while at the time of their retirements Frank R. Wolf was the second-most-senior Appropriations Republican and James P. Moran was the sixth Democrat by seniority on the panel.  

The two delegations joining the top tier are from states with some of the smallest levels of federal spending per person, a sign neither had played the earmark game all that aggressively even though its members were well-positioned to do so.  

Ohio, which had been out of the Clout Index top 10 for a decade, climbed nine spots to No. 5. Why? Speaker John A. Boehner is a native son, the assignments of half the Buckeye State’s members to exclusive committees, the GOP’s dominance of the roster in a year when Republicans control all of Congress and the contingent’s deepening collective seniority. (Last fall, Ohio was the state with the biggest House delegation in which every member sought and won another term.)  

Illinois realized an even bigger surge — a dozen spots, to No. 6. Its delegation is slightly bigger than Ohio’s (20 versus 18), has somewhat more collective seniority and features one of the Hill’s most powerful leaders in Senate Democratic Whip Richard J. Durbin. But with the resignation of Rep. Aaron Schock, who was on Ways and Means, fewer than half its members are on prestige committees, and its clout is clipped by the fact that most in the delegation are minority party Democrats.  

Without federal spending, the formula for measuring each state’s potential sway on the Hill is more weighted to the benefit of the most populated places — because the bigger delegations generally amass the most seniority, have strength in numbers from the party in power (whichever one it is), claim the biggest shares of the powerful panel assignments and promote their own for leadership posts.  

The top nine spots on the roster for the 114th Congress, therefore, are taken by delegations from most of the dozen most populous states.  

California is by far the nation’s most populated state (one-eighth of the nation lives there) and easily claimed the No. 1 spot. It’s held that position since the first clout study in 1990 and shows no sign of relinquishing it — even though the 55-member delegation includes just 14 Republicans, and 20 of the House seats have changed hands in the past two elections. The state still has more collective lawmaker seniority than any other, and it’s home to House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, two House committee chairmen (Republicans Devin Nunes at Intelligence and Ed Royce of Foreign Affairs), five committee ranking Democrats and 17 members of the most influential panels.)  

Texas, which incredibly is only two-thirds the size of California, eclipsed Florida and New York this year to claim the second-highest measure of potential sway — a reflection of the GOP dominance of the delegation, its relatively small turnover and its dominance of House gavels. This year Texans chair six of the 21 standing committees , two more than in the last Congress, as well as three of the dozen Appropriations subcommittees. Having John Cornyn as Senate GOP whip is a big added plus.  

The state with the most disproportionate clout relative to its size came in at No. 10: Maryland, which is 19th in population and has just 10 members of Congress. Only one is a majority Republican, but the group’s collective positioning could hardly be better. Four are the ranking committee Democrats, four have seats on the most exclusive panels and the other two have places in House Democratic leadership.  

The question is how far Maryland will slip in two years. With ranking Senate Appropriations member Barbara A. Mikulski retiring as the longest-tenured woman in congressional history, and with at least two (but perhaps four) members giving up their current House influence in hopes of succeeding her as a senator, the delegation is putting years of accumulated clout on the line.  

Such a gamble didn’t prove overly costly for Michigan, which declined only one notch, to No. 8, despite the retirements of three powerful chairmen  — House Republicans Dave Camp at Ways and Means and Mike D. Rogers at Intelligence, and Senate Democrat Carl Levin at Armed Services — as well as the longest serving member in history, House Democrat John D. Dingell. But the 16-member delegation is still home of two House chairmen, Republicans Fred Upton at Energy and Commerce and Candice S. Miller at House Administration, and three ranking Democrats: Sander M. Levin at Ways and Means, John Conyers Jr. at House Judiciary and Debbie Stabenow at Senate Agriculture. (Miller is retiring .)  

Gauging Capitol influence remains an inexact science, but the delegations with the most clout tend to have a swagger that’s tough to miss — and suggests our formula is producing some defensible results.  

Thursday: Which states are punching best above their weight, and which have the least clout relative to their size.

The Roll Call Clout Index

Virginia’s Clout Plummets with Cantor’s Defeat

113th Congress Clout Index

Camp Out, Rough Week: Michigan Delegation Facing Depleted Hill Clout

A History of Curiosities, Clout for Wisconsin Delegation

Oklahoma’s Clout Tested by Tornado Aid Divide

Hill Clout: 4 Big Underperforming States, Plus a Pair of Overperformers

The 114th: CQ Roll Call’s Guide to the New Congress

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.