Congressional Super Committee Short on State Experience

By: - September 16, 2011 12:00 am

When Chris Van Hollen was a freshman state legislator in Maryland in 1992, one of his first experiences was frustration with the federal government. He had successfully sponsored a bill to charge higher taxes on vehicles with poor gas mileage. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration blocked the new law, however, saying it conflicted with national fuel economy rules. Van Hollen was furious. He complained that federal officials had “nothing better to do than challenge state statutes designed to save energy and protect the environment.”

Today, state officials are hoping Van Hollen still remembers their interests. Now a five-term U.S. Representative, Van Hollen is one of twelve members of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (or “Super Committee”) that Congress created to devise a plan that would reduce the national debt by at least .2 trillion. The Super Committee could achieve that goal with cuts-to Medicaid, education, transportation or any other category of federal aid-that would be hugely consequential for states. But Van Hollen’s state experience-he served a dozen years in the Maryland legislature-is the exception on the Super Committee.

Four other committee members, Democratic senators Max Baucus and Patty Murray, Democratic Representative Xavier Becerra, and Republican Representative Dave Camp, also served in state legislatures, but only for a single term before running for Congress. John Kerry was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982, but hardly spent a year in the job before he began running for the U.S. Senate.

The longest-tenured state official on the Super Committee is Democrat Jim Clyburn, but he didn’t occupy an elected office. Clyburn spent 18 years as South Carolina’s Human Affairs Commissioner, a position in which he was responsible for fighting discrimination. Becerra and Camp worked in state attorney general’s offices. But five of the six Republicans on the Super Committee, including senators Jon Kyl, Pat Toomey and Rob Portman and representatives Fred Upton and Jeb Hensarling, never served in state government in any capacity.

Overall, that means that the Super Committee members have less state experience than the average member of Congress. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that about half of those in the current Congress are former legislators. Many of them served in state capitols much longer than the Super Commitee members, other than Van Hollen. When making their picks for the Super Committee, Senate leaders passed over former governors who are active on budget issues, such as Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, Virginia’s Mark Warner and Delaware’s Tom Carper.

How much any of that matters to the priorities of the Super Committee or the ultimate outcome of its work is, of course, an open question. It’s not as though only former state officials pay attention to state concerns. For example, Upton, who was a federal budget official before being elected to Congress, is supporting efforts by Republican governors to give states more control over Medicaid.

In any event, the Super Committee can’t enact a deficit reduction plan on its own. To become law, any plan will need to pass the full House and full Senate and win the signature of an eight-year state legislative veteran, President Barack Obama.

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Josh Goodman

Josh Goodman helps lead research on fiscal management and place-based economic development programs as part of Pew’s state fiscal health project. Goodman has served as a primary author for Pew studies that examine how states should evaluate tax incentives and maintain budget discipline when implementing those incentives.