Gains for anti-spending GOP mean trouble for a region so dependent on federal dollars

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

If your region typically votes Democratic and depends heavily on federal dollars for its prosperity, it's a bad day when Republicans make big gains in Congress after campaigning on passionate pledges to scale back government.

Pardon me for seeming blatantly partisan, but that judgment sums up the midterm elections' likely impact on the Washington area. It's hard to find a silver lining for the region in the GOP's takeover of the House and advances in the Senate.

Of course, our area would benefit along with the rest of the nation if Republican-backed policies succeed in helping to revive the economy, hold down taxes and reduce government burdens on business.

But Democratic losses translate into trouble when it comes to many issues unique to our region, such as Metro funding, federal jobs and voting rights in the District. The GOP triumph in the House costs the region influence on Capitol Hill - particularly because Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), local Democratic heavyweight, loses his position as majority leader.

If the GOP forces cuts in government spending as it promises, the region would have to rely less on Uncle Sam and more on its own resources to pay for mass transit projects and other needs. To offset losses in federal jobs and contracts, it would have to step up efforts to attract private businesses to invest here.

(Admittedly, the Republicans weren't very effective reining in federal spending the last time they were in power. This time, with the deficit gaping more than ever, they say they really mean it.)

Republicans trying to protect farm and business interests could slow the Obama administration's campaign to accelerate cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. The District will almost certainly attract more attention from conservatives trying to roll back or block implementation of such liberal measures as gun control, same-sex marriage, medical marijuana and needle-exchange programs.

The election will lift the importance in the region of two Virginia Republicans, Rep. Frank Wolf and Gov. Bob McDonnell. They will serve as important conduits to the new House leadership.

Wolf, a 20-year veteran who represents a district stretching from McLean to Winchester, has been a strong advocate fon transportation. McDonnell, if he chooses, can press the House to help Northern Virginia in the hope of ensuring that the state votes Republican in the presidential contest in 2012.

Here are some highlights of how the GOP's new strength in Congress could affect our region:

Less transportation money. It's going to be more difficult to pry loose federal money to build new mass transit projects, such as the proposed light-rail Purple Line in suburban Maryland. It might even require a fight to ensure getting $150 million a year of promised (but not yet appropriated) federal money to modernize and upgrade Metro. Wolf's strong support for the Silver Line, which is already under construction, probably means federal funds are safe for that new Metro line in Northern Virginia.

The outlook for getting more federal money for road improvements is uncertain. House Republicans have ruled out raising the gasoline tax to raise needed revenue. However, they will be more open than the Democrats to adding tolls, such as on Interstate 95, and creating public-private partnerships to pay to widen highways and build new interchanges.

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