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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010; A33

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.

Bureaucrats under siege. Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), who is expected to become speaker of the House, said in August that taxpayers shouldn't be "subsidizing the fattened salaries and pensions of federal bureaucrats," whom he criticized for allegedly "making it harder to create private-sector jobs." Expect pressure to hold down or even reduce pay and benefits for government workers, and to trim staff.

Republicans might also try to cut spending on federal contracts, although they also might protect defense contracts against trims proposed by Democrats. If contracting dollars shrink overall, it would weaken one of the main sources of economic growth in the Washington region.

Vanishing power brokers. Going into the election, five of the six congressmen from districts nearest to Washington were Democrats and thus in the majority. Now most of the area's House delegation will in the minority. The only ones in the majority will be Wolf and possibly Republican Keith Fimian, if he beats incumbent Rep. Gerry Connolly (D) in Northern Virginia in a race that was neck-and-neck late Tuesday.

In addition, the region loses the extra influence of having two congressmen high in the majority's leadership structure. Hoyer, who's been the No. 2 Democrat in the House after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, used his position to win Metro funding and support District voting rights.

And Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who represents parts of Montgomery and Prince George's counties, heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Still waiting for D.C. rights. Perhaps the single biggest setback will be the reduced prospect of getting full voting rights for D.C. residents. Republicans generally oppose that effort, partly because the District's 600,000 residents would elect liberal Democrats if they ever got voting seats in Congress.

The Washington region will continue to have leverage with the Democrats still controlling the White House and (apparently) the Senate. But the area will have to lower its expectations and adapt to the new reality of wielding less clout.

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