The Lure of the Spotlight

It’s easy to see why our congressmen, finally center-stage again, would want big roles in the Iraq debate. But if they go too far, they’ll lose a golden opportunity to tackle problems here at home.

Congressman Ed Markey, the Malden Democrat, likes to tell a story about a talking-to he received when he first arrived in Washington in 1976. At the time, Markey had made a name for himself as an upstart member of the state legislature, where, among other things, he was punished by Speaker Tom McGee for his defiance on a vote by having his office furniture placed in the hallway. When Markey ran for Congress that year, he turned that punishment into political gold by devising a brilliant slogan: “They can tell Ed Markey where to sit, but no one tells him where to stand.” But now that he’d won his congressional seat, Tip O’Neill told him, things were going to be different. Markey would have to learn to be patient. “Tip said on his first visit with me, ‘Eddie, I know you don’t appreciate it now,’” says Markey. “‘But the longer you’re here, the more you will.’”

Thirty-one years later, the benefits of patience are certainly apparent to Markey, who today is the dean of a delegation poised for what could be a glorious renaissance of political clout. Following the strict blueprint laid down by O’Neill and fellow giants John McCormack of Southie (speaker of the House from 1962 to 1971) and Joe Moakley (who held McCormack’s old seat until his death in May 2001), our representatives are spread across influential committees. And because of the uniquely ossified nature of Massachusetts politics—our junior senator, John Kerry, has been in his post for 22 years, creating a bottleneck that’s helped limit turnover in the state’s congressional ranks—our men in Washington not only occupy top seats on those committees, but also have plenty of experience in getting along. With Democrats back in the majority after 12 years, the homogenized nature of our all-Dem delegation is now an unqualified plus, and its Goldilocks–ian size, too, looks like an advantage. At 10 members, our House bloc is not too big (which can lead to infighting), nor too small (which makes it hard for a delegation to have much sway).

When Congress is in session, the Massachusetts delegation sits together, taking two rows in the front—which doesn’t seem all that special, though it is, as only a few other states and caucuses present such a unified front. And as its members settle into their new assignments, they collectively give the state what looks like an embarrassment of riches. Barney Frank is the chairman of the powerful Financial Services Committee, and Mike Capuano is enjoying increased juice after chairing Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s transition team. Markey heads up the influential Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, while Moakley protégé James McGovern of Worcester is number two on the potent Rules Committee. Martin Meehan of Lowell and Bill Delahunt of Quincy hold important oversight duties for their respective committees, Armed Services and International Relations; South Boston’s Stephen Lynch is an emerging force on veterans’ affairs.

Even Richard Neal of Springfield and John Olver of Amherst—not guys who often rate a lot of buzz here in Boston—have muscle to flex: Neal’s a senior member of mighty Ways and Means, giving him a say on issues like taxes and Social Security reform, and Olver heads up the Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee on transportation, which decides how federal dollars get spent on things like highways and bridges.

You don’t have to be a policy geek to get a little excited about all this, seeing as how federal dollars are something Massachusetts could stand to get more of, and not just for highways and bridges. We take in about 77 cents for every $1 in taxes we send to the Treasury, down 20 cents from when the Democrats last held power in the House, and a lower ratio than that of all but six other states. That leaves lots of room for improvement, for example, on the $2.27 billion Massachusetts receives from the National Institutes of Health—funding vital to our biotech and higher-ed industries—and the $8.4 billion funneled to our hospitals to cover Medicare patients. And on it goes, in critical areas like affordable housing, infrastructure, and law enforcement. No one’s suggesting we need another Big Dig. But it’s not wrong to want our newly empowered congressmen to bring home a little more bacon.

Before we all go envisioning freshly macadamed interstates and fat research grants, though, there is a catch. This golden era, if it is one, likely won’t last long. Population loss could cost Massachusetts one of its House seats following the 2010 census, which would require redrawing our congressional districts. And that could well pit two of our veteran reps against each other in the kind of battle for survival that brings tension to the whole delegation. Kerry, who at press time hadn’t announced his plans, could launch another run for president, setting off a scramble for his Senate seat that would grow only more fractious as election day 2008 approached. If our congressmen want to reap windfalls for the state, the time to get started is now.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying, to butcher Kerry’s infamously butchered joke, that they could squander a huge opportunity if they spend the next few months stuck on Iraq.

It is, to be sure, an essential part of every congressman’s duty to hold the White House accountable for its decisions. And there’s a grand tradition, dating back to the days of Lincoln, of congressional hearings held to get to the bottom of how a war went wrong. There’s also no question—whether you initially supported this particular war (as I did) or not—that people, especially people in our very blue state, want to see Bush try new tactics in Iraq. What’s harder to see is just how filling C-SPAN with endless Iraq inquests will get that done.

Back in 2005, McGovern, who seems to have been out in front of his colleagues on the issue, introduced a bill calling for an end to funding of the Iraq campaign. “To me, the more oversight the better,” he says now. “We need to create an environment where a majority want to end this war.” Late last December, Meehan and Delahunt announced they would hold joint hearings on Bush’s Iraq policy, rather than the overlapping individual probes they’d originally contemplated, and do so possibly in conjunction with Lynch, who at the time was looking into his own, ultimately stillborn effort. Delahunt says he and Meehan will pursue a narrowly tailored inquiry concentrating on the training of the Iraqi army: “Whatever alternative is being discussed, we keep hearing that the focal point is the training of Iraqi security forces. Yet we’ve been over there for four years, and we’ve seen no results. The issue is why.” Optimistic types could take that as evidence that the current spirit of common-sense collegiality within the delegation will carry the day—the last thing the country, the Democratic Party, or the state needs, after all, is two parallel broad-ranging inquiries run by two Irish-American former prosecutors from the Bay State. But considering the backlash to Bush’s troop surge plan, you wonder whether the restraint can hold. The most strident antiwar activists—the kind every Massachusetts congressman no doubt has at least a few of in his district—don’t want a narrowly focused inquiry. They want an all-out bludgeoning of Bush, and nothing short of an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops.

Smart sources on the Hill insist that Massachusetts’ congressmen will be able to resist the urge to go off the deep end about the war. And Markey, in his duties as dean, doesn’t see a need to suggest limits on how involved the members should get in the Iraq debate: “There’s plenty of room for plenty of commitments to [try to fix] what is perhaps the worst foreign-policy disaster in American history.” Capuano goes one step further. He feels that to suggest he and his colleagues need to decide between lunch-pail issues and Iraq is to set up a false choice. “In politics,” he says, “you’re supposed to be able to do more than one thing at a time.”

But it’s also true that in politics, especially in the legislative ranks, power is often best used when it’s kept focused on the real prize at hand. In their time, O’Neill, Moakley, et al. used discipline to maximize Massachusetts’ pull, and it’ll be discipline, or its absence, that determines whether this delegation realizes its potential. Barney Frank, for one, seems to recognize that.

After his party took back the House in November, Frank took himself out of the running for Kerry’s Senate seat, regardless of what Kerry decides to do. “There’s no way as a freshman senator I’d be able to have the influence I have now,” he says. Instead he’s planning to use his post to target problems from predatory lending to the preservation of affordable and low-income housing to increasing home ownership—not sexy issues, especially compared with solving the Iraq mess, but they all directly affect Massachusetts. He also recognizes that his new role will require scaling back what has been a lively sideline as a liberal voice on a variety of national topics. “I traveled around in my advocacy role. I’m not going to be able to do that as much,” he says. “Sometimes when you go deeper, you don’t go as wide.” He’s right, of course. But you do get more done.