Brain Drain or Political Gain?: The Congressional Delegation Lost Some Clout

Mar 1, 2009

President Barack Obama
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
While Illinoisans revel in the fact that one of their own now sits in the White House, Barack Obama’s presidency has sapped the star power of the state’s congressional delegation, which already had lost key members in recent years.

Gone in the last five years are the influential figures of Dennis Hastert (speaker of the U.S. House), Henry Hyde (chairman of the House Judiciary and International Relations committees), Bill Lipinski (an architect of the latest highway bill), Ray LaHood (a well-connected insider even before he joined the House) and Rahm Emanuel (a White House veteran and Democratic House leader). 

Not to mention Obama himself.

The Congress that Obama must work with includes 21 Illinoisans, tied for the fifth-largest state delegation with Pennsylvania. 

But of those 21 Illinoisans, nine were first elected since 2004. U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is the only Illinoisan in leadership, where he holds the No. 2 post in the Senate. No Illinoisans chair a standing committee in either chamber. 

Observers say having Obama in the Oval Office — where he will be working with Illinoisans both at the White House and in his Cabinet — more than compensates for the loss of so many heavyweights in his home state.

Emanuel left the House to serve as Obama’s chief of staff, the president’s right-hand man in the White House. LaHood, a Peoria Republican widely respected by members of both parties, became Obama’s secretary of transportation. Arne Duncan left his post as head of the Chicago Public Schools to serve as secretary of education. And Tammy Duckworth, Illinois’ director of Veterans’ Affairs, was tapped to take the No. 2 job in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“They’re Illinoisans. They know our problems. You don’t have to do a public relations effort to acquaint them with the problems the state has,” says U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo, a Republican from Rockford. 

When Obama met with House Republicans in January to promote his economic stimulus package, the president asked Manzullo about his district, which he has toured with Manzullo. “He knows the area I represent,” Manzullo says.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello, a Democrat from Belleville, agrees. The current members of the Illinois delegation likely will have good access to Obama and Emanuel, who were both former congressional colleagues, he adds.

On Inauguration Day, one of Obama’s first tasks was to call members of the Illinois National Guard in Afghanistan. During the conversation, the president remarked that some of the soldiers were probably St. Louis Cardinals fans from Scott Air Force Base, which is in Illinois’ St. Louis suburbs.

Costello, who lives near the air base, was delighted. 

“He’s the first president to my knowledge, in just making comments about our military, to mention Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. It’s because he’s been there,” Costello says. “He knows exactly what the mission is at that base.”

After meeting with Obama about the stimulus package shortly after becoming governor, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, made clear that he didn’t expect any special treatment for Illinois from the president. 

“I think the president said he’s not going to favor Illinois over any other state. Everybody in, nobody left out, I think is his basic philosophy. And that’s mine, too,” Quinn told reporters, according to The Associated Press.

Obama entered the Oval Office confronting a major economic crisis, one that will dominate his legislative agenda for the foreseeable future. That agenda will present Congress with many chances to pick winners and losers. The economic stimulus package likely is just the first example. Congress is due to write another highway bill this spring. Obama wants to build better schools, improve the electric grid, promote alternative energy and revamp the country’s health care system.

There’s plenty at stake for Illinois in each of those areas. 

Plus, Illinois only gets 75 cents back in federal money for every $1 its citizens pay in federal taxes. That means it ranks 45th among states, trailing only Connecticut, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire and Nevada, according to the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for lower taxes and less government spending.

But Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., cautions that Illinois’ local concerns pale in comparison to the “terrifying” economic situation. He notes that Congress, as an institution, is routinely criticized for being too parochial.

“Frankly, the state’s well-being has more to do with the country’s recovery than it does with the change in its percentage of benefits [from the federal government] that go directly to the state,” he says.

On the large policy questions — such as how to dispense economic stimulus funds or whether to pursue “clean coal” technology — having Illinoisans in the administration can help the Land of Lincoln, says George Washington University political science professor Christopher Deering. Other members of Congress may even give more deference to Illinois concerns than usual because they assume the White House will be watching, he says.

Still, when it gets to nitty-gritty details of arcane legislation, such as transportation or agriculture bills, the effect likely will be minimal, Deering says.

The large size of Illinois’ delegation helps increase its influence because the group can absorb the retirement of an individual lawmaker easier than in a smaller state. Illinois also has enough members to weigh in on most policy debates through Congress’ committee system, Deering adds. (Illinois may, 
however, lose another seat after the 2010 census.)

In the House, Illinoisans are concentrated on the Financial Services, Small Business and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. They have seats on 14 of the chamber’s 20 standing committees. Some of the panels with no one from Illinois are minor committees. Others, such as the Armed Forces and Natural Resources committees, have a bigger impact on other regions.

As a party leader and a close Obama ally, Durbin is poised to weigh in on most policy decisions before the Senate. He also sits on the Appropriations, Judiciary and Rules committees. Democratic U.S. Sen. Roland Burris’ committee assignments mostly deal with national security, but he has indicated he wants to focus his work on the economy.

Frank Mackaman, a staff member for the Dirksen Congressional Center in Pekin, says it’s also important that the Illinois delegation is a Democratic one. Currently, 13 Democrats and seven Republicans represent Illinois, and the seat vacated by Emanuel is likely to go to the Democrats after a special election in April.

“Despite the lack of star power, the fact that it is a Democratic state and has superb connections to the administration, that’s more important than the loss of the stars,” Mackaman says. 

It is notoriously difficult to measure the relative influence of a delegation, or of any individual lawmaker, but one recent study shows how important a role Obama and Emanuel played in their respective chambers before they left.

In 2007, Illinois had the 15th most powerful delegation in Congress, according to an analysis done by Knowlegis, a Capitol Hill research service. The calculation relied on measures such as the amount of money lawmakers secured in earmarks, legislative activity and positions in their chamber.

Durbin was third among senators. Obama, despite his junior status, was ranked 11th. Emanuel was deemed the 10th most effective House member, the highest-ranking among Illinoisans. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, an Evanston Democrat, secured the next-highest Illinois spot, at No. 31.

Illinois certainly isn’t alone in losing senior members. About 50 new members join Congress in a typical election cycle, and Costello, the Democrat who is now the dean of the Illinois delegation, says it’s becoming more common for younger candidates to run for Congress and win.

Having well-placed allies in the delegation helps the whole state, especially because Illinois’ members of Congress emphasize working together regardless of party.

When Manzullo first came to the House in 1993, his most pressing concern was trying to amend the Clean Air Act because it would have required residents of McHenry County to meet carpooling rules designed for more heavily populated suburban areas. But retooling the law was a potentially explosive task politically.

Manzullo says he told fellow Republican Dennis Hastert, then a member of the minority leadership, about his problem. Hastert introduced the freshman to Rep. John Dingell, the Michigan Democrat who then chaired the relevant committee, and soon Manzullo was working with Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California to tweak the law. Without Hastert’s intervention, Manzullo says it’s unlikely he would have co-sponsored his first law with a liberal California Democrat with whom he had little in common.

More recently, Durbin and Obama helped Manzullo come up with the money he requested for about 10 projects in his home district that he wanted funded in the latest transportation bill. The senators helped cover the cost of those projects with the money each had been allotted, Manzullo recalls.

“It was astounding. It was extraordinary,” he says. Manzullo says both senators trusted him to know his district’s needs. That type of cooperation doesn’t always happen, even in states where the senators and representatives are from the same party, Manzullo adds.

The Illinoisans in Congress are quick to tout their good working relationship. The entire delegation meets once a month to talk about their common problems, a practice former House Republican leader Bob Michel says he helped start with two Democratic senators, Paul Simon and Alan Dixon, decades ago. 

Costello and Manzullo — the most senior Democrat and Republican in the delegation — co-hosted a bipartisan reception to welcome Illinois’ two newest members of Congress, Republican Rep. Aaron Schock of Peoria and Democrat Debbie Halvorson of Crete.

In the Congress Schock and Halvorson now enter, power doesn’t depend as heavily on seniority and chairmanships as it once did.

Just before Michel entered the U.S. House in 1957, Illinois Republicans had locked up key spots. They chaired the Foreign Affairs, Judiciary and Rules committees in the House and held the House majority whip slot. Illinois’ senators, Everett Dirksen, a Republican, and Paul Douglas, a Democrat, were “real powers,” Michel says.

“I was just a little upstart,” recalls Michel, who would go on to lead the House Republican caucus by the time he retired in 1995.

But Democrats took over the House in 1957, ousting Illinoisans from the valuable committee chairmanships. Instead, southerners dominated those positions. So when 29-year-old Dan Rostenkowski joined the House two years later, he relates now, the freshman congressman told then-Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, “I’m a legislator, and I’m going there to win the Civil War.”

He kept his word. He stayed for 35 years. Eventually, Rostenkowski became chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee before he lost his seat in the aftermath of his indictment in the House post office scandal.

“I stayed there long enough to become chairman and screw[ed] the Texans and the Californians and the New Yorkers and the Pennsylvanians, because they were getting away with murder,” he says.

Rostenkowski became chairman in 1981 and served under three speakers of the U.S. House. He helped craft a fix to Social Security with President Ronald Reagan. And he watched out for the state of Illinois.

“The day we conclude politics isn’t a selfish game, we’ve lost track. … I was criticized a great deal because I leveraged my chairmanship, but I’ll tell you one thing: Gov. [Jim] Edgar loved me, Gov. [Jim] Thompson loved me, because I solved a lot of their problems by being selfish enough to take care of Illinois,” he says of the Republican governors.

Congress no longer works in the same way. The party leaders have taken on a bigger role, limiting the influence of committee chairmen. Michigan’s Dingell, the 82-year-old dean of the U.S. House, was recently toppled from his post as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee by California’s Waxman because Dingell was too sympathetic to Detroit’s automakers for his Democratic colleagues. While Republicans controlled the chamber, they limited chairmen to six years of running their panels (a practice the Democrats have not continued).

“It’s tremendously changed since I was there,” Rostenkowski reflects. The role of chairmen and individual members has been so diminished, the Chicago Democrat says he would resign rather than serve in the House today.

Committee chairs still have considerable power, but party leaders are exerting more control over them. The enthusiasm over earmarks — the pet projects put into massive budget bills by influential lawmakers — has diminished in light of several scandals, from Jack Abramoff to the so-called Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.

Mann, the scholar from Brookings, says lawmakers willingly ceded some of their control to party leaders when the caucuses had fewer internal divisions and wanted their agendas enacted quickly. He says the process started in the 1980s and, even after some concessions by Democrats upon regaining control of Congress two years ago, the party leaders are still firmly in control.

Mann cautions against reading too much into seniority and formal positions when determining legislators’ impact. 

“There are senior members who are ineffectual, and there are young members like Rahm Emanuel who hit the ground running and managed to be in top leadership ranks after a couple of terms in office,” he says.

In three terms in the U.S. House, Democrat Rod Blagojevich never moved beyond backbencher status. But in his three terms, Emanuel, Blagojevich’s successor, vaulted into House leadership, orchestrated a Democratic takeover of the chamber and was widely rumored to be interested in becoming speaker.

It helped that Emanuel already had star power when he got to the House. By then Emanuel was known as a veteran of both Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and his White House staff. He was such a prominent figure, in fact, that he was the model for a central character in the TV series West Wing. His role organizing the Democrats’ successful 2006 bid to take control of the House for the first time since 1994 only enhanced his reputation. 

Likewise, Obama entered the Capitol as a celebrity, thanks to his breakout performance giving the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. By the time he became the Senate’s most junior member, a horde of reporters and fans routinely followed Obama, and he already had become a best-selling author.

Obama’s Senate replacement arrived on Capitol Hill with a crowd of TV cameras in tow, too, but that owed more to the bizarre circumstances surrounding Burris’ appointment than to any of Burris’ accomplishments. Burris eventually became a senator through a gubernatorial appointment from Blagojevich, who had been arrested but not yet impeached or removed from office. FBI agents arrested the governor for, among other things, allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat Burris eventually filled.

The theatrics may have sullied Illinois’ reputation, however fleetingly, but the state’s other newcomers are learning the ropes and trying to carve out a spot in the House.

Halvorson, a Democrat from the south suburbs of Chicago, notes that House Democrats had been recruiting her to run since 1999. When she finally got to Washington, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, rewarded Halvorson by placing her on a key committee that shapes the speaker’s agenda and determines lawmakers’ committee assignments.

“She wanted to take advantage of my leadership and my talent that I bring, not only as a [former] state legislator but [Illinois Senate] majority leader,” Halvorson says. The position gives Halvorson the chance to meet House members from across the country who want to lobby for specific committee assignments.

And Republican Peter Roskam, now in his second term in the House, recently secured a spot on the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax law. Roskam of Wheaton touted the assignment as a way to promote tax relief for his constituents.

Costello, the senior Democrat, sees plenty of room for cooperation among the Illinois delegation in the upcoming sessions, especially in causes Obama supported as a U.S. senator.

The lawmakers can work together to get money to improve roads, rail and other infrastructure for Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid. And Costello says they can try to revive FutureGen, a $1.8 billion effort to develop technologies to burn coal with zero emissions in Mattoon, a project that the Bush administration scuttled last year.

“I only hope Illinois will do as well under President Obama as Texas did under President Bush.”


It helped that Emanuel already had star power when he got to the House. By then Emanuel was known as a veteran of both Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and his White House staff.

Daniel C. Vock is a reporter for Washington, D.C.-based

Illinois Issues, March 2009