Mass. may lose its clout in House

GOP gains would shift power balance; some in delegation could quit in 2012

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 26, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Massachusetts House delegation, a bastion of Democratic power for the last four years, will lose much of its clout if midterm voters restore a Republican majority in November — an outcome that Bay State party leaders and consultants say could trigger a major reshuffling as representatives assess their futures.

The state’s House members publicly insist that Democrats will remain in control. That viewpoint is belied by national polls, however, which indicate angry voters may sweep the incumbent party out of power in the House and perhaps even the Senate.

With chairmanships, budget-writing authority, and other trappings of control stripped away, many Democrats across the country would probably consider an exit in 2012. Several members of the Massachusetts House are believed to be of that mind, as well, including Newton liberal Barney Frank, who has speculated about taking an Obama Cabinet post, and Michael Capuano of Somerville, who could make another bid for US Senate.

“If we go back in the minority, you’ll see some senior members reassess about whether they want to hang in here for another four, or six, or eight years to try and get the majority back,’’ said Representative Stephen Lynch, who himself has been the focus of speculation about a campaign for Republican Scott Brown’s Senate seat.

The GOP needs 39 seats to seize control of the House. Thus far, the only one of the 10 Massachusetts districts that is believed to be in play by political forecasters is the open Tenth Congressional District seat, which is being vacated by Representative William Delahunt.

Even if the remaining nine survive their challenges, they would be reduced to trying to slow Republican initiatives and perhaps cutting deals to advance lesser priorities. It would represent a significant change for a set of staunch Democrats who were instrumental in passing the health care overhaul and financial reforms.

“If the Republicans take the majority, it will be a disaster for Massachusetts,’’ said Phil Johnston, former chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party. “It really will be a huge setback. We’ve lost [Senator Edward M.] Kennedy, we’ve lost Tip [O’Neill, the former House speaker]. Now we have people who are either in key chairmanships, or about to move into them.’’

The delegation does now enjoy an unusual concentration of power.

Just over the last several months, Frank, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, was at the forefront of one of the biggest debates in Washington, leading passage of a Wall Street regulatory overhaul in response to the economic crisis. Representative Edward J. Markey, chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, oversaw Gulf Coast oil spill hearings and forced BP to release live video feed of the gushing well.

Representative John Olver, Democrat of Amherst, is part of an elite club of members known in the House as “cardinals,’’ because he holds a subcommittee chairmanship on the Appropriations Committee.

Representative Richard Neal, Democrat of Springfield, has been angling to become the next chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Washington. Some believe Markey, the dean of the delegation, may jump in against Brown, while Olver may step aside after one more term.

“You may have two retire, and you may have two or three run for Senate if it flips,’’ said Scott Ferson, a Massachusetts-based Democratic consultant. “You’ve got a couple people who are powerful but aging. Olver, who is in his 70s, might think, ‘What am I doing?’ You’ve got Barney Frank, who has indicated at some point he’s going to move on. Does this hasten his exit?’’

In a biography written about him last year, Frank told author and former aide Stuart Weisberg that he would like to cap his career as Housing and Urban Development secretary but not before passing legislation on affordable housing.

“I want at least two years with President Obama and a solidly Democratic Senate so that we can get the federal government back in the housing business,’’ Frank said in the book. He has since tamped down any speculation that he would retire, or take a Cabinet position. At a breakfast meeting with reporters on Friday, he declined to discuss what would happen in a post-loss world for Democrats.

The size and one-party makeup of the Massachusetts House delegation makes it unique. Only two other states with more than two congressional districts have filled them exclusively with Democrats: Connecticut, with five; and New Mexico, with three. It has been this way in Massachusetts since 1996, when two Republicans — Peter Blute in the Third District, and Peter Torkildsen in the Sixth District — lost their bids for reelection.

“Having a bipartisan delegation has a lot of benefits, particularly when control of the house flips back and forth,’’ said Torkildsen, who was in office the last time Democrats lost control of the House, in 1994.

“For the first year the Democrats sat around and moaned about how much power they used to have,’’ he said. “But you realize that you have to accept the reality that the voters have chosen. If you stay in denial through the next election cycle, most times you’re not going to still be there.’’

Nationally, this time around, 79 of the 86 races considered competitive by the Cook Political Report are held by Democrats. In Massachusetts, the incumbents face some spirited challengers, but are all expected to win reelection, at least at this juncture with five weeks to go before the Nov. 2 election. Most said they don’t even want to contemplate life in the minority.

“That’s not going to happen,’’ said Olver. “I don’t like working in hypotheticals.’’

“I’ll have to up my medication,’’ quipped Representative James McGovern, Democrat of Worcester, who is second in seniority on the Rules Committee. “Obviously it’s better to be in charge than not. I don’t even want to speculate what it would be like to lose the House. It would be not only bad for Massachusetts, but bad for the country. I’m not thinking that way. I refuse to allow myself to.’’

Markey was adamant that Democrats would retain the House majority.

“There is no scenario under which the Massachusetts delegation is going to be viewed as anything other than very powerful. No scenario,’’ he said. “We are going to win.’’

If Democrats are again in the minority, it would likely be by a narrow margin. Neal, in that event, would still be expected to mount a bid for the ranking minority member on the Ways and Means Committee. That could make him a pivotal force if the Republicans decided to cut deals with Obama and the Democrats, but it would be a far cry from wielding the gavel.

“It seems to me that being the ranking minority member is not much better than being the janitor,’’ said Maurice Cunningham, a political science professor at UMass Boston.

Whether Massachusetts would lose money from federal appropriations is harder to measure. Olver, while he’s on the appropriations committee, does not have a reputation for aggressively seeking pork-barrel projects for the state. House Democrats this year also banned earmarks for for-profit institutions, and spending is expected to be even tighter in the coming years as concerns over the deficit continue to take precedence.

If Republicans win control of the Senate — an unlikelier, but still possible, prospect — it would bump Senator John F. Kerry from his perch as chairman of the influential Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. In a statement, he offered little hint about what he would do in such a scenario. He will be up for reelection in 2014.

“I’ve served in the majority and I’ve served in the minority and it’s a hell of a lot better to be in the majority,’’ Kerry said. “I want to be fighting to make good things happen, not just fighting to stop bad things from happening.’’

A move to the majority, however, would only be a plus for Brown, currently the lone Republican in the delegation.

Matt Viser can be reached at

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