A question of legacy for Hoyer


Steny H. Hoyer is the youngest person ever elected as president of the Maryland Senate and the state’s longest-serving member of Congress. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Steny H. Hoyer happily dis­cusses the mile markers along the road of his career to this point: the youngest person ever elected as president of the Maryland Senate; the state’s longest-serving member of Congress.

He doesn’t easily talk about what could be the next one; the big one — the one that could yet define his more than 45 years in elective office.

“Nancy? We don’t have that discussion,” Hoyer said, abruptly, when asked whether he talks with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi about when she might relinquish the top spot among Democrats in the House of Representatives.

Hoyer has served as Pelosi’s No. 2 for most of a tumultuous decade. He would be a leading contender to replace her, if and when she retires. And if Democrats regain a majority before the spry 73-year-old leaves office, Hoyer could be speaker of the House, second in line to the presidency — a first for any Marylander.

“She’ll make her determination,” Hoyer said, deflecting the question on a recent Saturday afternoon at a campaign office deep in the state’s 5th Congressional District, which stretches from inside the Capital Beltway in Prince George’s County to the southern tip of Maryland’s waterfront along the Chesapeake Bay.

“When I was 35, I worried about it a lot — what was my next move? So I ran for governor, then Congress. But now, I’m very comfortable with what I do, very comfortable with the role I play. . . . I’m not very anxious about the next step. It’ll take care of itself.”

Before then, though, he needs to get past Tuesday’s election in which he faces a challenge by Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, the Republican leader in the House of Delegates. O’Donnell says Hoyer has lost sight of what should be a limited role for the federal government. And he recently blasted Hoyer as arrogant for declining a face-to-face debate, calling the incumbent a “smoldering ember underneath the smoke screen of his 45 years as an elected official.”

In Annapolis, O’Donnell (Calvert) has retained control over an increasingly fractious Republican caucus and is best known for leading floor opposition to Democrats’ spending plans, tax increases and tighter government regulations. Without the power to filibuster, he often uses parliamentary maneuvers and bill amendments to tie up legislative debates for days.

Hoyer said the differences between the two elected leaders is clear, and observers expect him to win reelection easily. Hoyer has received at least 65 percent of the district’s vote in each election since 1992.

There’s little doubt Hoyer, dean of a powerful contingent of Maryland incumbents in Congress, would like a chance to put his stamp on the House.

As minority whip, he has mostly played the role of opposition pit bull since Republicans won control of the chamber in 2010. But Hoyer still thinks of himself first as a bipartisan compromiser — and capable of crafting a final chapter on that front even in Congress’s current gridlock.

Asked about his legacy, Hoyer touts bills signed by the last two Republican presidents as his greatest legislative achievements: the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, enacted under President George H.W. Bush, and the 2002 federal election reform known as the Help America Vote Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush.

In private, Hoyer says he’s still working with Republicans. He is engaged in ongoing discussions with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, he said, about how to avoid the fiscal cliff of austerity cuts and tax increases scheduled to take effect in January. Hoyer says a grand bargain on spending cuts and tax increases is still what’s needed.

“You’ve got to deal with all of our expenditures. You’ve got to deal with entitlements. You’ve got to deal with defense, and non-defense, and with tax expenditures,” Hoyer said. “I believe the single biggest challenge to our country is getting this country on a fiscally sustainable, credible path.”

Todd Eberly, who teaches politics at St. Mary’s College in Hoyer’s district, said there are two legacies at work for the congressman, his possible ascent to the speakership and his lesser-known role as benefactor to Southern Maryland.

Hoyer’s work in the base realignment and closure process and continued efforts to steer research and development to Naval Air Station Patuxent River have helped make the base the largest economic driver in the lower reaches of the state. It was no accident, Eberly said, that the 2010 Census revealed that of Maryland’s eight congressional districts, Hoyer’s had gained the most residents and jobs — more than 50,000.

Ironically, Eberly said, Hoyer’s legacy in creating military jobs in the district could one day make it harder for Democrats to retain control of the seat. “He’s been bringing in military contractors, people who vote Republican,” Eberly said.

Hoyer said he’s not worried; retirement is a ways off. “Maybe in another 20 years.”

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
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