Prestigious Committee Vacancies Attract Md. Congressmen

By ALIA MALIK, Capital News Service

WASHINGTON - As senior members of Maryland's delegation in the House of Representatives leave their spots on exclusive committees, some of the state's junior members are jockeying to keep those sweet seats in state hands.

Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-5) will leave the Appropriations Committee, which writes spending bills, to become the next Majority Leader when the 110th Congress convenes in January. After winning outgoing U.S. Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes' seat, Rep. Ben Cardin, D-Baltimore, will leave the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax legislation and bills affecting programs like Social Security and Medicare.

Looking to take their places are Democratic Reps. Elijah Cummings of Baltimore, Dutch Ruppersberger of Cockeysville and Chris Van Hollen of Kensington. Ruppersberger wants a seat on Appropriations, while Van Hollen is interested in Ways and Means. Cummings, who has served four more terms than the two sophomores, has expressed interest in both committees.

It's unclear which committee Cummings wants more, but he thinks he has a better chance at Ways and Means because there is less competition for seats there, said spokeswoman Devika Koppikar.

"He's been expressing his interest for some time on that because of Mr. Cardin leaving and keeping that seat for a Marylander," she said.

By controlling the purse strings, those committees have immense influence on every issue facing the House, and the Maryland three are fighting a slew of lawmakers from all over the country for those prestigious positions.

"These are all ambitious people," said Zach Messitte, who teaches political science and directs the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary's College, of the Marylanders. "They're all elbowing each other for who's going to be the next Steny."

Because members from Maryland are leaving the coveted committees, House leadership might look to Maryland to replace them, said Laslo Boyd of Gonzales/Boyd Political Consulting.

"The general history of congressional committees is that there is some desire to keep a regional balance and some representation from people who have had it before," he said.

Being from Maryland could work for or against the trio, Messitte said.

"It's sort of having the Hoyer connection and having the Pelosi connection," he said, referring to Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is originally from Baltimore. "The other hand being, 'Wow, Maryland's sort of overrepresented at the top level. We'd better be careful.'"

If the current ratios of majority-party to minority-party members are kept, the Appropriations Committee would have room for eight Democrats, and Ways and Means could take nine. Committee assignments will probably be made next week, said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill.

Pelosi has a strong hand in committee decisions, which are made based on diversity, merit and the needs of the representative's district, Hammill said.

Diversity could favor Cummings, formerly head of the Congressional Black Caucus. But district needs—which include the practice of giving power to struggling members to help them solidify their position—could work against the Marylanders, Messitte said.

"These people are all in safe seats," he said. "They don't need a plum assignment to be re-elected in two years."

Several more factors can come into play, including seniority and the kind of expertise each member has, Boyd said.

"You have to think of it like a jigsaw puzzle," he said. "They're trying to move people around and give committees a mix of people they can work well with."

Because so many seats are open, Van Hollen said he doesn't see his interest in Ways and Means as a competition with Cummings.

Working closely with Pelosi, Van Hollen recruited and advised many of the 41 new Democrats, helping deliver the House into the party's hands. That could help him get his wishes, but he hasn't figured out exactly what those are, he said.

If Van Hollen joined Ways and Means, he would have to give up his positions on the Education and the Workforce, Government Reform and Judiciary committees. He said he's still deciding whether Ways and Means is worth the trade-off.

Ways and Means has "a broad jurisdiction over a lot of the issues that Americans are going to be confronting," he said. "It's also true of the committees I serve on, which is part of the dilemma."

Although he and the entire Maryland delegation crossed Pelosi by supporting Hoyer for Majority Leader over her pick, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, Van Hollen said that shouldn't make a difference in committee assignments.

"I don't think the fact that Marylanders supported their own member of Congress is going to weigh against them," Van Hollen said.

As a former Baltimore County executive in charge of a $2 billion operating budget, Ruppersberger said his money-management expertise and his work with Democratic leadership as an assistant party whip put him in a better position for a spot on the Appropriations Committee, but he couldn't predict his chances.

"I've let it be known that I would like to serve on the Appropriations Committee sometime down the road," he said. "Whether or not that's going to happen now, we don't know."

Despite the competition between them, Ruppersberger said Cummings was still "a very close friend."

It's difficult to predict how the committee assignments will play out, even for someone who follows politics, Boyd said.

"What's going to happen in Congress is usually judged best after it's been done," he said. "John Murtha thought he had a lot more votes than he did. You can't tell 'til it happens."

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