Maryland flexes muscle in Democratic Congress

The Baltimore Sun

Has Maryland ever exercised more power in Congress than it does right now?

In the 110th Congress, the state's two Democratic senators and six Democratic representatives enjoy a degree of influence that may exceed any of the 109 previous sessions. Only 13 states have as many House Democrats as Maryland's six - and just eight of those states also boast two majority-party senators, as Maryland does in Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin. Even Wayne T. Gilchrest, one of the delegation's two House Republicans, frequently crosses the aisle to vote with the majority.

But it's more than party status: The Old Line State also boasts some top-of-the-line positions in Congress.

No Marylander has ever served as speaker of the House or Senate majority leader. But with Baltimore native Nancy Pelosi of California in the speaker's chair and 5th District Rep. Steny H. Hoyer serving as her top deputy, the state is as close to holding the congressional brass ring as ever.

"She's certainly a daughter of Maryland," Gov. Martin O'Malley says of the speaker. "Part of the reason why the Maryland delegation is well-situated in terms of assignments and the role they're playing is partly a reflection of the respect and affinity she has for Maryland."

One of those assignments belongs to 8th District Rep. Chris Van Hollen, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee for the 2008 election cycle. The "D-trip," as it is informally known on Capitol Hill, is charged with helping to elect and re-elect Democrats to the House.

"I was pleased to be asked by the speaker to take on this responsibility, and the chance to work with my colleagues to expand our majority," Mr. Van Hollen told me by phone last week. "It's a great spot - you're right at the intersection of politics and policy, and part of the team that sets the agenda for the House."

Elsewhere on the House side, 7th District Rep. Elijah E. Cummings remains a key senior figure in the Democratic caucus. In addition to long-standing assignments on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Oversight and Reform Committee, Mr. Cummings began a new assignment this year on the Armed Services Committee. He is also active with the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus, which he chaired.

"With Steny Hoyer stewarding our legislative agenda as House majority leader, Chris Van Hollen growing our majority as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and a strong delegation across the state, Marylanders are making their voices heard on the Hill," Speaker Pelosi wrote to me by e-mail.

The delegation has forged a strong connection to Annapolis, where Governor O'Malley hosted the full delegation in the early days of his administration. That meeting was followed by another such meeting in Washington in Ms. Mikulski's office. Mr. Gilchrest says the governor's approach is reminiscent of how Gov. William Donald Schaefer worked with Maryland's congressional delegation. "We have a great, open dialogue, including me and [fellow Republican] Roscoe [G. Bartlett]," Mr. Gilchrest says of the state delegation's cooperation. "And I want to tell you that Nancy Pelosi has been very open to our ideas. She's a good listener; she's thoughtful."

Nor does it hurt to have Senators Mikulski and Cardin on two key fiscal committees, appropriations and budget, respectively. "She's a tremendous power," Mr. O'Malley, who worked on Ms. Mikulski's 1986 campaign, told me. "It's great to have somebody with that sort of clout on appropriations."

Base realignment, protection of the Chesapeake Bay, support for the State Children's Health Insurance Program that is currently being negotiated between Congress and President Bush - on these and other issues with state-federal implications, the Annapolis-Washington nexus gives Maryland an inside track to power in the new Democratic Congress.

There are more powerful delegations, to be sure. Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania each have at least 10 Democrats in the House and two Democratic senators, as does California, with its whopping 33-member Democratic delegation that includes the speaker. But Maryland, for now, is flexing some legislative muscle in Washington.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com.

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