Washington state will see its seniority in D.C. drop next year as veteran Reps. Norm Dicks and Jay Inslee leave Congress in January.
WASHINGTON — Carrying an outsized punch, Washington state had the eighth-most powerful delegation on Capitol Hill last year, but its clout will take a big dive in 2013, when three freshmen join the team.
As a result, the outgoing Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks, who in January will retire after 18 terms in the House, offered some blunt advice last week for his colleagues.
“Other people are going to have to pick up the pace a little bit,” said Dicks, 71, who ranks 10th in seniority among the 435 House members.
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In the biennial power rankings by Roll Call, a Capitol Hill publication, only California, Texas, New York, Michigan, Virginia, Florida and Maryland topped Washington state in 2011.
Even though the state ranked 13th in population, it joined the list of the 10 most powerful for the first time, coming as a nod to the state’s increasingly veteran delegation.
But next year it will lose a combined 52 years of experience: Dicks will leave after 36 years, and Democratic Rep. Jay Inslee is giving up his seat to run for governor after 16 years in the House.
Their replacements will be joined by a third newcomer in a new seat gained from population growth shown by the 2010 census. It will be the biggest infusion of new blood into the delegation since the 1994 Republican landslide delivered six new freshmen.
Some say the situation will be similar to 30 years ago, when the state lost its two longtime Democratic senators: Warren “Maggie” Magnuson, who was defeated in 1980 by Slade Gorton and left as the nation’s most senior senator after 36 years in office, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the two-time presidential candidate who died while still in office in 1983 after 30 years in the Senate.
“I think there’s always periods of transition,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Smith of Tacoma, who next year will become the state’s third most senior House member, behind Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle and Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco.
In an interview in his office at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Dicks called it “a replenishment” and said he’s not worried because “other good people in the delegation” will carry on.
“This has to happen from time to time,” Dicks said. “We went through this when we lost Maggie and Scoop, and we lost (former House Speaker) Tom Foley, but we still held our own. You know, we were still able to get things done.”
Influence on rise
In an institution that rewards few things more than longevity, the Washington state delegation has gained both in experience and stature in recent years.
Dicks, who as a freshman in 1977 was appointed by House Speaker Tip O’Neil to the Appropriations Committee and is now its top-ranked Democrat, has become one of Congress’ leading experts in spending and defense issues.
The delegation’s biggest power broker is Democrat Patty Murray, a 19-year senator and chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Committee. She led last year’s debt supercommittee and now ranks fourth in the Senate’s leadership command. She’s on the Senate Appropriations Committee and also is leading her party’s efforts to attract and finance Senate candidates in 2012.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, the vice chairwoman of her party’s House caucus, now ranks fifth in leadership after getting elected in 2004 and is a close ally to House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio.
Hastings, who’s in his ninth term, last year took charge of the House Natural Resources Committee.
And Smith, in his eighth term, has risen to become the highest-ranked Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.
Murray said Dicks’ departure will result in a big loss of “institutional knowledge” for the delegation and “knowing who to call, what buttons to push and how to make whatever needs to get done, get done.”
“He works so many problems for our state, he knows all the people that can have an impact, and he can do that very quickly,” Murray said. She considers Dicks, who joined Congress 16 years before she was first elected, both a friend and mentor, adding: “How many times do I pick up the phone and I have Norm say, ‘Patty, this is what you need to do.’ “
Friends across the aisle
Republicans in the delegation said they’ll miss Dicks, too.
Hastings, noting that he and Dicks “hailed from opposite sides of the political spectrum and the Cascade Mountains,” said he has always admired Dicks for “standing up for the state,” including for his push to clean up the Hanford nuclear reservation.
And freshman Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said she didn’t know what to expect from Dicks when she joined Congress last year, but that he went out of his way to welcome her.
“A different kind of public servant might have given me the cold shoulder,” she said.
Herrera Beutler, who was born in 1978, marveled at Dicks’ longevity in the House: “Holy cow! He started the year before I was born. It is incredible.”
Dicks is the only member of the state’s delegation currently serving on the House Appropriations Committee. Even though it’s tough for freshmen to get assigned to the panel, both Murray and Smith said it will be important to lobby to get one of the state’s freshmen a seat on the influential committee in 2013.
Dicks used his appropriations seat to steer millions of dollars to his district by winning earmarks, special funds for individual projects that benefit only an individual district or a state. He said he was upset when Congress clamped down on the practice, adding: “I would defend every earmark I ever made.” And he said he hopes that Congress “will reassert itself and do things” while ensuring all earmarks are fully transparent.
“I’ve seen a lot of members, including a number from our state, who thought the job was to come back here and vote,” Dicks said. “When I learned this from Magnuson and Jackson and our congressional delegation, it was, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get something done, you have to help your district, you have to help your state.’ That’s a dimension that a lot of people don’t understand. …
“We did everything we could do,” he said. “Without earmarks, we are really limited now in what we can do.”
Agenda still full
With less than 10 months left as a congressman, Dicks is predicting a busy year.
He said he will work to pass a new round of appropriations bills. And one of his biggest goals will be to avoid $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts set to kick in next year as a result of the failure of Congress’ supercommittee to come up with a deficit-reduction plan.
At a hearing of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee last week, Dicks grilled Army officials on what the cuts — done under a process called sequestration — could mean for the military.
Dicks said he has no plans to endorse a replacement, and he is trying to figure out what to do with money that he already raised for his re-election campaign. Money that had been targeted for the general election will be returned, he said, and his staff is trying to determine what to do with the rest. One possibility, he said, is to donate some to a scholarship in his name at the University of Washington-Tacoma.
While he intends to spend more time with his family next year, Dicks said he expects to work, as well, though he has nothing specific lined up. He said he “would like to be helpful to the University of Washington” and that he still wants to back cleanup efforts for Puget Sound.
Whatever he does, he said, “it won’t be at the same pace.”