When veteran Virginia congressmen James P. Moran, a Democrat, and Frank R. Wolf, a Republican, announced their plans to retire, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had a plan to mitigate the damage. He would make the case that the commonwealth should get one and possibly two new seats on the powerful Appropriations Committee.
Then Cantor lost his primary.
In January, Virginia will have gained three new members in Congress — but lost 71 years of seniority, including a valuable stronghold in Republican leadership.
Perhaps just as bad, Virginia’s and Maryland’s entire Senate delegation is Democratic — and poised to enter the minority with the GOP’s dramatic sweep of last week’s elections. One of them, Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), will lose her post as head of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Federal workers and contractors in the region have already been badly hurt by two rounds of sequestration budget cuts. Now, with another budget battle looming and Republicans in control of both chambers of Congress, two incoming House members from Virginia — Don Beyer (D) and Barbara J. Comstock (R) — will be fighting an uphill battle for the estimated 172,493 government workers in their combined districts.
The rest of the Washington region will also probably struggle. The District has one Democratic member of Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, but she is a nonvoting delegate. In Maryland, turnover is not the issue: The delegation is stocked with veterans, including Mikulski, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D), and the ranking members on the House budget, intelligence and oversight committees.
The problem is that they’re all Democrats in a Congress where both chambers will soon be led by Republicans, and their combined experience won’t lead to much influence. The entire Maryland delegation will have only one member from the majority party — Rep. Andy Harris (R), a conservative whose politics and leadership aspirations make him unlikely to stand up for the state’s federal largesse.
Mikulski was instrumental in much of the region’s growing presence of federal security agencies locating in Maryland. In the past 30 days alone, she has announced eight grants and other funding increases to Maryland totaling $106 million, a typical haul.
She also has been an outspoken voice for the District, beating back Republican efforts in Congress to block marijuana decriminalization, cut abortion funding and loosen gun control.
“It’s going to be a really ugly two years” for Maryland, said Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. In particular, he said, federal funding for the Chesapeake Bay cleanup will likely be at risk. Republicans may also do their best to blunt federal regulations governing the bay environment.
The change also could affect plans to relocate the FBI in a way that could hurt Maryland but help Virginia. Mikulski has pushed the White House to put the agency’s new headquarters in Maryland. When she loses her gavel and the power it holds, it levels the playing field for Virginia, said several elected officials and staffers who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In Virginia, Comstock has positioned herself as a natural heir to the retiring Wolf, whom she worked for in the 1990s and is seen by both parties as a lonely Republican voice in support of federal employees.
“I want to be every bit the advocate on federal employees that Congressman Wolf has been,” she told The Washington Post before her victory. In one debate, she elaborated, saying federal workers “need to be paid fairly, and we don’t need to have the budget balanced on their backs.”
She also made her party affiliation a selling point, telling voters that they needed an advocate for the region in the majority. Every other congressman in the area is a Democrat. She has already started talking to her new Democratic colleagues about how she can help land the FBI headquarters, for instance.
“[Rep. Gerald E.] Connolly and Beyer and our senators will hopefully have some influence with the White House; I’ll work the majorities in Congress,” she said.
But she will still be a freshman in a body of 435.
“You can have impact in small ways, but it takes years” to build power on Capitol Hill, said Steve Stombres, a top Cantor aide. “They’re not going to be the ones making those decisions for a long time.”
And Democrats are skeptical that Comstock will be as easy to work with as Wolf, given her past work as a partisan operative and her opposition to a bipartisan transportation overhaul in the state legislature.
Cantor was not considered an ally of the federal workforce. He supported federal pay freezes and retirement system changes. Although he ultimately voted earlier this year to raise the debt ceiling — which may have helped him lose his primary — he was an advocate for the showdown with Democrats that led to the government shutdown.
Yet as the committee seat negotiations show, he was willing to help his delegation in some crucial ways. He was a forceful advocate for defense spending, which supports about 40 percent of southeastern Virginia’s economy. He pushed privately for federal funds for high-speed rail in the state and loan guarantees for shipbuilding. Aides say the Virginia delegation is very close, having met monthly for years to discuss state issues.
Wolf’s 17 terms in office gave him influence even in an anti-government, anti-spending majority. He chaired the appropriations subcommittee that handles the Justice Department, a perch that enabled a $1 million federal grant to a human-trafficking task force in Northern Virginia. He also serves on the transportation subcommittee and has directed billions in federal assistance to the Silver Line project. After the government shutdown, aides say, he was instrumental in getting federal workers their back pay.
“There’s nothing that moves anymore in Congress but appropriations bills,” said one Republican staffer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If you’re not on the Appropriations Committee, you’re not going to get anything.”
Wolf also worked closely with Moran, who was a ranking member on the committee, to steer dollars and federal infrastructure to Northern Virginia.
Moran says “nothing good” will come for federal employees in the next few years, although he says it has more to do with the overall makeup of Congress than the change in the Virginia delegation.
Beyer is well-positioned to be influential, he said. While Beyer, a former lieutenant governor, has no Capitol Hill experience, “he’s very effective and is into personal relationships,” Moran said, and has given generously to other Democratic candidates.
“Whoever is elected from whatever party is going to be a strong advocate for federal workers in those areas,” said J. David Cox Sr., the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees. “They are both going to be less in seniority, but they’re both very vocal folks.”
For Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who has clashed with Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a change of party control might offer new opportunities to be a dealmaker. In his victory speech Tuesday night, Warner seemed almost excited by the prospect of a Republican Senate, saying he would “suit up one more time for whatever group, gang or cabal, whatever it takes to make sure we get our nation’s balance sheet fixed.”
“I think of him as a bipartisan sleeper cell in the Senate,” said Ellen Qualls, a longtime Warner aide.
“Whenever a moment happens, sometime in the future, when the Senate leadership allows its members to vote on difficult questions, he will rise up and activate some of the relationships he has spent six years acquiring.”
But the atmosphere in Congress already makes it hard for anyone to do much for their constituents, said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University.
“In the days of earmarks, [Moran and Wolf] really did well for us,” Fuller said. Now, he says, given that Maryland and Virginia ranked near the bottom of all states in economic growth last year, “if these guys are working for us, maybe it’s time that they leave.”
Aaron Davis contributed to this report.