Minority Blues

Massachusetts's Democratic Congressmen won their elections, but lost their power. What will they do in John Boehner's House?
By DAVID S. BERNSTEIN  |  November 17, 2010


The historic national Republican wave, which saw the GOP gain at least 64 seats in the US House of Representatives, seemed to skip Massachusetts, which elected Democrats in all 10 congressional districts.

But the midterms nevertheless transformed the Bay State's congressional delegation. In one fell swoop, the group went from one of the nation's most powerful and influential delegations, to one of the most irrelevant.

The nine incumbents, and newcomer Bill Keating — who succeeds the retiring Bill Delahunt — will all be members of the minority party in the House when the 112th Congress meets in January. Rather than playing central roles in crafting legislation and directing committee hearings, they will be sitting on the sidelines as presumptive Speaker John Boehner leads his fellow Republicans in a new direction.

It's not much fun being in the minority — as most of them know, from personal experience. Only Niki Tsongas (first elected in 2007) and Keating were not in Washington during the Republican control that began with the "Gingrich Revolution" and lasted from 1995 to 2006.

"We now have a smaller seat at the table," says Congressman Michael Capuano, whose district includes portions of Boston. "Nobody can pretend it's good for the state — it isn't."

Being in the majority for the past four years has been way better — especially for Massachusetts congressmen whose length of service, committee assignments, or close relationships with Speaker Nancy Pelosi have paid dividends.

Those dividends have included the ability to direct federal resources and attention to their home districts; a central role in writing bills; considerable sway in determining legislative priorities; and power to pursue oversight of government and industry.

All of that will be dramatically reduced with Democrats thrown back into the minority.

That's prompted much speculative chatter about the future of the delegation. At least half of the state's 10 congressmen are rumored to be thinking of leaving Congress in 2012, either to run for Senate against Scott Brown, or to retire from elected office altogether. (See sidebar, "Ten Little Congressmen," opposite page.)

Not so fast, say others, who suggest that the Republican takeover of the House might actually reinvigorate the lawmakers.

Having proven themselves safe for re-election, even under the most difficult circumstances, Congressmen Barney Frank, Ed Markey, Jim McGovern, and the others are now free to take lead roles in setting the Democratic opposition to Republicans, and the agenda for 2012 and beyond. They could end up, in the long run, with more power and influence than ever.

"Yeah, it's gonna suck for them for two years," says veteran political consultant Scott Ferson of Liberty Group in Boston. "But unlike [1994], they're not looking at it like: 'Oh my God, for the rest of my career I'm stuck.' "

Assessing the damage
Frank and Markey will lose their chairmanships, and Richard Neal will not get the one he was expected to receive next year. John Olver will no longer head the Appropriations subcommittee that decides transportation spending. John Tierney and Steve Lynch each chaired Oversight and Government Reform subcommittees; McGovern was second in command of the Rules Committee.

Not only do they all lose their long-sought gavels, they must watch Republicans eviscerate their agenda.

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Related: Can Patrick Hang On?, Reliving the nightmare, Chaos Theory, More more >
  Topics: Talking Politics , Massachusetts, Democrats, Ed Markey,  More more >
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