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Culture shock may be in store for House spending panel

A powerful House Appropriations subcommittee is set for new leadership, and that could mean shifting priorities

Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., left, and Chairman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., conduct a subcommittee hearing in the Rayburn Building on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Matt Cartwright, D-Pa., left, and Chairman Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., conduct a subcommittee hearing in the Rayburn Building on Thursday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

One powerful congressional panel is set to exchange the South Bronx for rural Pennsylvania in the next Congress — in a manner of speaking.

Following the retirement of Rep. José E. Serrano, four-term Rep. Matt Cartwright is set to become the top Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Commerce and Justice departments and independent agencies like NASA and the National Science Foundation. The sprawling $70 billion bill is a battleground for numerous hot-button issues facing lawmakers, such as gun rights, immigration policy and climate change.

Cartwright’s ascension to the role of chairman, or ranking member should the House flip back in 2020, would mark a quick rise for the 57-year-old, who ranks 18th in seniority on the full committee, having joined fewer than three years ago. But he’s not leapfrogging over any of his more senior colleagues to gain the position.

Unlike the House Appropriations Committee’s Republican members, who set subcommittee leadership positions based on full committee seniority, Democrats set their roster based on subcommittee seniority.

“Our practice recognizes the Appropriations Committee’s broad jurisdiction and allows members to develop seniority and expertise on a particular subcommittee before they become a chair,” committee spokesman Evan Hollander said.

The Democratic rule prevents senior members from jumping from a subcommittee they’ve served on for years to one they’ve never been a member of in order to get a gavel.

“If you haven’t spent much of your life looking at those programs and the competing needs of different activities within the jurisdiction of the subcommittee, then it’s going to be very hard to make good choices when you have to choose which place to put money,” said Scott Lilly, a former House Appropriations Democratic staff director.

Another fairly junior panel member with a gavel is Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Mike Quigley, an Illinois Democrat who ranks 16th on the full committee.

New panel members typically get less desirable subcommittees and often move around, which can hamstring leadership opportunities.

For example, California Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee joined the committee in 2007 and ranks ninth in seniority, but she has yet to become a subcommittee leader. Neither has Maryland Democratic Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who ranks 12th. Both, however, are in line for desirable slots in the coming years.

Lee is in line behind Nita M. Lowey, who’s also the full committee chairwoman, to lead State-Foreign Operations, second in line on Labor-HHS-Education and fourth on Agriculture. Ruppersberger is next in line for Legislative Branch, second in line for Homeland Security and third in line for Defense.

Decades, and worlds, apart

The 75-year-old Serrano announced last month that he has Parkinson’s disease and won’t run for re-election in 2020, though he plans to serve out his term.

Cartwright was sworn in for the first time in 2013; more than two decades after Serrano took his first oath of office. He joined the Appropriations Committee for the first time in September 2016, nearly 23 years after Serrano became an appropriator.

Cartwright’s mostly rural Pennsylvania district is also worlds away from Serrano’s solidly liberal Bronx stomping grounds. Covering broad swaths of the eastern part of Pennsylvania, including Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and the Poconos, Cartwright’s 8th District is much more moderate, rural and white.

Cartwright’s district voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election by a 9-point margin, but Cartwright won in 2018 with 54.6 percent of the vote. The National Republican Congressional Committee already has him on its list of Democrats to target in the 2020 elections.

The district doesn’t fit neatly in any one political box, with Lackawanna and Monroe counties voting for Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey during the 2018 elections and the other three counties voting for his Republican challenger, former Rep. Lou Barletta.

The region’s coal industry, once dominant, is now in decline, as the availability of cheap natural gas from hydraulic fracturing elbows out an industry that was once dominant. Pennsylvania’s 8,927 coal mining jobs in 2012 shrank by nearly 40 percent to 5,458 in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That means Cartwright has to be more sensitive around environmental issues than many others in his party.

But Cartwright is aligned with traditional Democratic constituencies, including labor unions, which have been some of his top campaign donors throughout his career. Cartwright’s district also has its fair share of federal employees, including at the Wilkes-Barre veterans medical center and Tobyhanna Army Depot.

Cartwright and Serrano see eye to eye on the vast majority of policy issues — Cartwright voted with House Democrats 95 percent of the time during 2017, while Serrano voted with them 98 percent of the time, according to CQ Roll Call’s Vote Studies.

But the people for whom Cartwright casts votes on the House floor are overwhelmingly white, rural and middle class. Serrano’s South Bronx district is two-thirds Hispanic or Latino, according to the Census Bureau, and one of the poorest in the country, with more than 70 percent of households making less than $50,000 annually.

Puerto Rico issues, including its recovery from a deadly 2017 hurricane season, have been central to Serrano’s legislative goals. Part of that stems from the fact that he was born in Mayaguez and lived on the island until he was six, and nearly 20 percent of his constituents identify as Puerto Rican.

Serrano focuses his efforts on the Commerce-Justice-Science panel on matters like the 2020 census, fighting to try to block Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross from adding a question on citizenship, which critics say could chill participation. And he helped protect funds for legal aid to immigrants in detention, as well as for programs like the Minority Business Development Agency and EPA funding to clean up the Bronx and Harlem Rivers.

While his regional and geographical differences with Serrano are stark, Cartwright doesn’t shy away from contentious issues.

During hearings within the last month, he asked FBI and ATF officials how tens of millions of extra dollars a year in funding would help them to prevent guns from getting into the hands of people who shouldn’t have access.

“This Congress is clearly motivated to address violent gun crime in this nation, and I want to make sure that as we pass commonsense gun safety laws, we properly fund the agencies tasked with enforcing those laws,” Cartwright said during a March 13 hearing on gun violence.

He has also discussed the severe weather that stems from climate change as both a public safety and an economic issue. And he has promoted funding for the National Science Foundation as a way to keep America competitive with China.

“Why would anyone in the world want to cut NSF funding given that its funding drives our economy, enhances our national security and advances this nation’s leadership globally?” he asked during a March hearing on the National Science Foundation’s fiscal 2020 budget request.

Empty chair

Should Cartwright move up in the ranks, the laid-back Pennsylvanian’s style will be a departure from the sometimes theatrical and typically jocular Serrano, known for joking with witnesses and colleagues.

Serrano made waves last week for opting to question an empty chair, for example, when Ross declined to testify on the Commerce Department’s budget request.

At a budget hearing before the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, which Serrano was chairman of at the time, he joked with Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas about obstacles his Puerto Rican heritage may bring if he were to run for president.

“I appreciate the fact that off-the-record there you told me I’m probably not eligible to run for president,” he said to laughs inside the hearing room, just as the 2008 presidential campaign was ramping up. “That’s an ongoing thing with me.”

“I think [Hillary] Clinton will be very happy,” he continued.

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