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Wild Shakeup to Hit New Mexico

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/domenici.jpgSen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) (WDCpix)

In an election year teeming with contests that could transform the political landscape across a number of states, few face the shakeup set to hit New Mexico, where 64 years of congressional seniority will evaporate in a single day.

Tempted by the retirement of six-term New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici (R ), all the state’s House members — Reps. Heather Wilson (R ), Tom Udall (D) and Steve Pearce (R ) — have announced end-of-the-year retirements for the chance to fill his seat. Combined, the three candidates have 28 years of Washington experience — eight years fewer than Domenici alone — with Wilson’s 12 years marking the longest stint. While one of the three will return some Capitol Hill experience to Congress’s upper chamber next year, some experts say the overhaul could leave a power vacuum that could take years to fill.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/08/politics.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

The shakeup could be particularly tough for New Mexico, which receives more federal dollars per capita than all but five other states, according to the most recent U.S. Census report. Salting the wounds, the state is set to lose two spots on the powerful appropriations committees. Both Domenici and Udall have seats there now, but freshman lawmakers almost never gain membership. The loss of appropriators, combined with the loss of incumbency, will be a double-blow to the state’s influence over federal politics and policies, some experts say. The influx of federal dollars, they add, will almost certainly fall.

“It’s very unusual to have that many open seats at the same time,” said David L. Epstein, political science professor at Columbia University. “[The funding] won’t go away all at once, but if you were betting on federal dollars a few years down the line, you’d have to think there will be a reduction.”

Bruce Cain, director of the University of California’s Washington Center, agreed, arguing that larger states have an easier time absorbing congressional overhauls and power fluctuations in Washington. “But in smaller states [like New Mexico],” Cain said, “a few retirements or a change in party can have a much greater effect … Seniority certainly counts for something, and when you lose it, you also lose influence.”

As an example of what is at stake, consider the scramble in Idaho last summer after Sen. Larry Craig (R), racked by a men’s room scandal, announced his early retirement. A powerful appropriator who sat on six appropriations subcommittees at the time, Craig represented hundreds of millions of dollars in state projects for fiscal 2008 alone, leaving everyone from the Idaho National Laboratory to the University of Idaho scurrying to secure the funds. Craig ultimately scrapped his early-retirement plan, citing “seniority and important committee assignments that are valuable to Idaho.”

Domenici also sits on six appropriations subcommittees, and currently has sponsored about $247 million in pending earmarks, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget watchdog.

The extent of the impact of loss of seniority hinges on a number of moving parts, not least the results of November’s elections. Richard Semiatin, a government professor at American University, pointed out that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Cal.) has gone out of her way to cater to freshman Democrats to keep a foothold on their districts in 2008. With the Democrats expected to expand their House majority in November, he said, that trend will likely continue for 2009’s incoming Democrats.

“This is about the elections,” Semiatin said. “Are the [New Mexico] freshman going to be in the majority party or not? If two or three go Democrat, [Pelosi] is going to protect them, because these are the marginal seats, and they’re most vulnerable. If Republicans are elected, they won’t get any help.”

Of the three House seats up for grabs in New Mexico, Udall’s will almost certainly go Democratic, Pearce’s favors the Republicans, and Wilson’s is a toss-up, according to the Cook Political Report, a Washington-based congressional election handicapper. The race to fill Dominici’s seat also now stands as a toss-up — a ranking that will remain until New Mexico’s June 3 primary decides the Republican nominee, said Jennifer Duffy, managing editor and political analyst for the Cook Report.

Not all signs point to a loss of New Mexican influence on Capitol Hill. The state is home, for example, to both the Los Alamos National Laboratory and the White Sands Missile Range — both high-profile facilities that have a history of securing federal funds regardless of the political climate in Washington.

In fiscal year 2006, for example, $2.1 billion of New Mexico’s $21 billion in taxpayer dollars went to Los Alamos. In fiscal 2004 (the last year data are available), White Sands received $548 million.

While the state will surely miss the clout of Domenici, New Mexico’s junior senator, Jeff Bingaman (D), is a 25-year veteran who sits on the powerful Finance Committee and chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Duffy said that federal appropriations to New Mexico may suffer following this year’s imminent congressional overhaul, “but Sen. Bingaman is no slouch in that department either.”

Jude McCartin, a Bingaman spokeswoman, said the senator is little concerned about the effect the elections could have on the state’s ability to secure federal funding, pointing out Bingaman’s experience and committee assignments.

Historic precedent also lends New Mexicans reason to be hopeful following the congressional reshuffling. Arkansas in the late 1990s, for example, saw three of its four House members leave the chamber in the same year, replaced by freshmen Reps. Marion Berry (D), Vic Snyder (D) and Asa Hutchinson (R), according to the House Historian’s office. Hutchinson was immediately assigned to the Judiciary Committee, where he became an important figure in the proceedings surrounding the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. Berry, for his part, is now an influential member of the House Budget and Appropriations Committees.

Senate rules work in favor of New Mexico as well, according to Sarah Binder, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and professor of political science at George Washington University. That’s because even minority senators can influence legislation by upholding filibusters. House lawmakers, on the other hand, hold very little sway over legislative outcomes. The looming election overhaul “sets back New Mexico in the House,” Binder said, “[but] there’s a certain amount of power that accrues to states regardless of how much [Senate] seniority there is.”

The cumulative effect on New Mexico “is a blow,” she said, “but it’s not devastating.”

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