Just How Powerful Is Your Member of Congress

Just How Powerful Is Your Member of Congress
Illustration of a muscular man flexing

It's November 2021 in Montpelier, Vermont.

Senator Patrick Leahy, who's tenure in the United States Senate was longer than John F. Kennedy's entire lifespan, who's the sole person in the world to be both third in line to the Presidency and in five Batman movies, who chaired the all-mighty Appropriations Committee, who was present for the confirmations of every single current Supreme Court Justice (though he certainly didn't vote for all of them), who chaired not one but two "A" Senate Committees, announces he's retiring.

The Senate ranks its committees from most important to least important: Class A, Class B, and Class C. Check out the Committee rankings here.

It feels like one of the Corinthian pillars in the U.S. Capitol building is being removed. This giant brought home dollar after dollar to Vermont year after year. But let's remember: it's the seat - not the politician - that's a permanent fixture.

Peter Welch, the son of a dentist and a homemaker, an eight-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, will go on to become Senator Welch. But here's where things get interesting.

Senator Welch does not just slip into all the vacancies Senator Leahy left behind, take his former office space and Committee seats. At the age of 75 and having served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years, Mr. Welch is now the junior Senator from Vermont – the senior Senator being one Mr. Bernie Sanders.

Congress, the Senate especially, loves seniority. The longer you've been there, the more power you typically have at your fingertips.

Look at the plumb Committee assignments - like House or Senate Appropriations, which control the federal government's purse strings - and most of the Committee leadership's Congressional lifespan is old enough to drive a rental car. Connecticut's Rosa DeLauro, Ranking Member of the House Approps Committee (and Congress' only purple-haired member), has been in office 33 years. Senate Approps Chair Patty Murray of Washington has been in the Senate for 31 years.

Wondering what the most powerful Committees are? In the Senate, you're looking at Approps, Armed Services, Finance, and Foreign Relations. In the House, it'll be Approps, Ways & Means, Energy & Commerce, and Financial Services. The common denominator is money: these Committees move big money or have a lot of sway over how big industries with money (Wall Street, oil and gas, etc) operate.

But. Members also choose Committees based on district or state priorities. For Senator Lisa Murkowski, Alaska's senior Senator who's logged over two decades in the Senate, the Indian Affairs Committee is critical for her to sit on.

Besides seniority and Committee membership, another power position in Congress is party leadership. Speaker of the House (Mike Johnson), Senate Majority Leader (Chuck Schumer), and their minority counterparts have flanks of other Members in their leadership fold.

There are whips who lead on vote counting, party chairs and leaders, and many positions have deputy positions. These Members in leadership - who usually don't sit on Committees - have more money to have a bigger staff operation, which means more capacity to wield influence, horse trade or twist arms for votes, and on.

For this evening's bedtime reading, here's a list of Dem and GOP House leadership and Senate leadership.

Why does this matter? Policy, like a great many things, turns on power. Who has it, who stands to gain or lose it. As we think about what our federal legislators can do, it's helpful to see what kinds of power they wield.

So why not look at the bios of your Senators and Member of Congress to check out a few things:

  • How long have they been in Congress? Do they have some seniority (roughly, let's say that's served more than two terms in the Senate, three or more in the House)?
  • Every Senator sits on an A Committee, but for House members, are they on a powerful Committee (see above)? Are they in Committee leadership (Chair or Ranking Member of the Committee or one of the subcommittees) or party leadership (see above)?
  • And why not check if they're on Committees with jurisdiction over issues you care about.

If you've got newbies who're on a bunch of bottom shelf Committees, remember that anyone serving in Congress has built-in positional power: they've won hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions of votes. With that power, they can write letters people will read, make statements people will listen to, change policy people will feel.

Back in Vermont, Senator Leahy's wife Marcelle cried a bit as her husband announced the start of this new chapter. And surely plenty across the Green Mountain State were perhaps not crying, but concerned about how much money would flow from D.C. to their rural state in this new chapter.

While Senators' work can impact the whole country - and, at times, world - they are beholden first to their voters. The more powers a politician has, the more they can deliver for those who elect them. And as Chair of the all-mighty Approps Committee that decides how to spend taxpayer dollars, Senator Leahy said his modus operandi “was simple: help all states in alphabetical order, starting with the letter V — Vermont.”

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