The Intersection of Clout and Dysfunction

Oregon is gaining seniority and political clout in Congress, but is that power as effective as it once was in a Congress known more for its dysfunction than its accomplishments?Oregon may be on the threshold of reaping the benefits of congressional seniority as members of the state delegation move into higher-profile and more powerful positions. But Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes wonders whether seniority in a dysfunctional Congress is as important as it once was.

For years, Oregon power brokers jealously eyed the political clout of Washington's delegation, with Warren Magnuson as chair of Senate Appropriations and his protégé Congressman Norm Dicks as a rising star in House Appropriations. When asked about the value of chairing Senate Appropriations, Magnuson famously said it was all about sharing — if Alabama got a project funded, then one was funded in Washington; if Maine got a project funded, then another one was funded in Washington.

Oregon experienced its own political heyday when Mark Hatfield as chair of Senate Appropriations, Bob Packwood as chair of Senate Finance, Al Ullman as chair of House Ways and Means and Bob Duncan and later Les AuCoin as members of House Appropriations. Hatfield didn't approach his chairmanship with the same swagger as Magnuson, but he still managed to bring home a lot of bacon.

Times change and states send new members to Congress, who start at the bottom rung of seniority. They have to fight to get a decent office and don't get to guide major spending or tax decisions. Oregon's congressional power appears to be returning. The Roll Call Clout Index lists Oregon as one of the states gaining the most power on Congress since 2009. It lists Oregon's delegation as the 26th most powerful delegation in Congress, up from 39th when Barack Obama became president.

"It's taken a while for the delegation to reload," says Mapes, "but now the seniority system is starting to work in the state's favor again."

Oregon senior Senator Ron Wyden rose this session to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Now the chair and ranking Democrat of Senate Finance have announced their retirements, opening the door for Wyden to claim the chair of the committee that oversees taxation, international trade and Medicare — if Democrats hold control of the Senate following the 2014 election.

Congressman Greg Walden, the Oregon delegation's sole Republican, has moved into the House GOP leadership. Even though he agreed to step aside from a larger committee role at the request of Speaker John Boehner, Walden heads the National Republican Congressional Committee, a license to print IOUs from Republican colleagues who need cash, polling and staff help to win elections. Walden also chairs a House telecommunication subcommittee.

Senator Jeff Merkley has gained a seat on Senate Appropriations, Congressman Earl Blumenauer now sits on House Ways and Means and Congressman Peter DeFazio is the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit. Merkley and Blumenauer also sit on the Senate and House Budget committees, respectfully.

The two most junior members of Oregon's delegation, Congressman Kurt Schrader holds seats on House Small Business and House Agriculture and Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici sits on House Education and the Workforce and House Science, Space and Technology. 

Impressive stuff, but Mapes asks whether it will matter to Oregonians. "What Wyden, Walden et al can actually get done," he says, "is what will really interest Oregonians." 

And what the delegation can get done is a function, Mapes adds, of what Congress does. "The question is," he asks, "how much value is clout in an institution that is so dysfunctional?"

Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes wonders whether congressional clout can outweigh the importance of bringing home results that Oregonians want when Congress seems to be floundering.