No state in this decade has seen a more meaningful boost than Tennessee in institutionalized congressional influence.
Only eight states, all with much bigger delegations because they’re much more populous, have more overt sway at the Capitol this year. That is one of several notable findings from the new Roll Call Clout Index, which the newspaper uses to take a quantifiable measurement of every state’s potential for power at the start of each new Congress.
Another important development, which is widely understood by many on the Hill, gets tangible support from the new calculations: Texas has now attained almost as much stroke at the Capitol as California, even though having by far the biggest congressional contingent has led the Golden State to secure the clout crown without much contest each time Roll Call has run the numbers since 1990.
Just two years ago, Tennessee’s clout ranked 14th among the states, unremarkable because that is closely in line with its ranking as the 16th most populous state, with 6.6 million residents. And only six years ago, the 11-member delegation was punching well below its weight, coming in at No. 27 in the Clout Index.
What’s changed is that the state has done better and better, especially relative to other states its size, in the calculable things that contribute to a delegation’s overall leverage. In a Republican Congress, it makes a difference that both senators and seven of the nine House members are on the majority side. In an institution with plenty of recent turnover but where seniority still provides tangible benefits, it makes a difference that all but one of the Volunteer State’s lawmakers have been in office longer than six years.
And the partisan alignment and longevity has helped propel members of the delegation into positions that convey authority and power. Not only are both senators in their third years as chairmen of premier panels, Bob Corker at Foreign Relations and Lamar Alexander at Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, but also two House members have been handed committee gavels this winter: Diane Black at Budget and Phil Roe at Veterans Affairs.
Beyond that, Alexander chairs the Appropriations subcommittee controlling spending on energy and water development programs, while fellow Tennessee Republicans have risen to senior seats on all three premier House committees: Black at Ways and Means, Chuck Fleischmann on Appropriations and Marsha Blackburn at Energy and Commerce.
Such positions are not exclusive paths toward influence, of course. Those assigned to backwater committees, minority party members, newcomers and other backbenchers can exert leverage in plenty of hard-to-quantify ways.
That’s why debates about the states’ relative congressional throw-weights are never-ending — and are about more than parochial bragging rights on the softball field or at the Capitol Lounge. Countless lobbying campaigns, regional squabbles, and fights over finite slices of federal spending have turned when one state has proved better positioned to assert its say at the crucial moment.
This was never more so than in the era of widespread congressional earmarking, and for a quarter-century, the Clout Index sought to reflect each delegation’s success at the pork barrel game by including federal spending per capita in the weighted formula.
Roll Call dropped that statistic from its algorithm two years ago, in part because the government’s method for calculating the numbers changed, but mainly because it was clear members had lost much of their past power to direct taxpayer money back home.
Lone Star rising
One result was that for both the 114th Congress and the new 115th Congress, the seven most populous states were also the seven states with the most congressional clout.
California has been on top of the list for 27 consecutive years — not surprising given that it has 12 percent of all the House seats, a neat reflection of its being home to 12 percent of the national population.
But the giant Golden State delegation’s perennial hold on No. 1 has become suddenly threatened by the lawmakers from Texas, the second largest state even though it’s only slightly more than two-thirds California’s population. Two years ago, California’s clout score was 25 percent higher than that of Texas, but this time the advantage has shrunk to just 8 percent.
The main reason is that while California’s delegation is lopsidedly aligned with the congressional minority (both senators and 39 of the 53 House members are Democrats) and relatively young (24 House members have arrived since 2013 and one senator, Kamala Harris, is new this year), the Texas delegation is dominated by members in the majority (both senators and 25 of the 36 House members are Republicans) and more senior (almost two-thirds of the Lone Star State delegation has been in office a dozen years or longer.)
To be sure, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, the ranking minority member of Senate Judiciary, still command enormous attention in the Capitol, and the enormity of the Democratic delegation means Californians get plenty of representation on every prestige committee.
But the roster with prime majority power boils down to four from the House: Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy, Chairmen Devin Nunes of Intelligence and Ed Royce of Foreign Affairs, and a single Appropriations “cardinal” in Ken Calvert of the Interior Subcommittee.
Republicans from Texas, on the other hand, include not only Majority Whip John Cornyn in the Senate but a remarkable seven of the 21 committee chairmen in the House, including several of the most influential panels: Kevin Brady of Ways and Means, Jeb Hensarling of Financial Services, Pete Sessions of Rules and Mac Thornberry of Armed Services, plus Michael McCaul of Homeland Security, K. Michael Conaway of Agriculture and Lamar Smith of Science, Space and Technology.
With their colleagues holding gavels at three of the dozen Appropriations subcommittees, that means 40 percent of all Texans in the House GOP have the sort of institutionalized leverage that their Senate colleague Ted Cruz spent much of last year’s presidential campaign railing against.
After those two behemoths, delegation sway plummets. New York comes in a distant No. 3 on the Clout Index, with a clout score two-thirds of Texas’, thanks in part to the recent promotions of Charles E. Schumer to the top Democratic leadership spot in the Senate and Joseph Crowley to the chairmanship of the Democratic Caucus, the party’s No. 4 House leadership spot.
The Empire State’s collective seniority and 10 assignments to the most prestigious committees would generate much more leverage except for the fact that only one-third of the delegation is from the GOP.
It nonetheless finished well ahead of Florida, even though the Sunshine State’s population edged ahead of New York a couple of years ago and its 29-person delegation has just attained the narrowest of Republican majorities.
But it has not had a member of the formal Hill leadership in years, the only person with a prestige gavel is Mario Diaz-Balart of the House Appropriations subcommittee for housing and transportation, and its cumulative seniority was sapped by a mid-decade redistricting that has resulted in 10 House seats being occupied by fresh faces this year.
Ohio stayed in the No. 5 spot even though the state’s pre-eminent lawmaker in the previous Congress, Speaker John A. Boehner, was forced into a midterm retirement. His influence can still be felt, however, in the fact that half of the 18 members of the delegation hold seats on the most exclusive committees — including two House Republicans on both Energy & Commerce and Ways & Means and a bipartisan group of three on Appropriations.
Pennsylvania is the only other state with both senators (Republican Pat Toomey and Democrat Bob Casey) on the tax and entitlements panel, and its GOP-majority House delegation is well-positioned on the committees with the most influential jurisdictions. But its delegation of 20 finished a hair behind that of the more Democratic, but also more seasoned, group of identical size from Illinois, headed by Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin.
Tennessee was the only newcomer to the top 10, replacing Maryland, which tumbled eight spots largely because of the retirement of Barbara A. Mikulski. Not only did that cost the state 40 years of experience (no woman has served longer) and the top Democratic seat on Senate Appropriations, but the two who vied to succeed her, the winner Chris Van Hollen and the loser Donna Edwards, had to give up a combined 22 years of seniority and a couple of Democratic leadership posts along with their safe House seats.
Rounding out the top tier were New Jersey, which moved up a notch with help from Rodney Frelinghuysen’s election as the new GOP chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Michigan. The Wolverine State slipped two more places (it was No. 4 just six years ago) in part because Republican Fred Upton at Energy and Commerce and Democrat Sander M. Levin at Ways and Means gave up their parties’ top spots and in part because half the state’s 14 House seats have changed hands in the last two elections.