With the Republican Party poised to take a stronger lead in the Capitol, so too is Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, lawmakers and analysts say.
When the 114th Congress convenes on Tuesday, the House composition of 247 Republicans and 188 Democrats will represent the largest GOP majority since 1929. Senate Republicans hold a 54-to-46 advantage over Democrats.
Thirteen of Pennsylvania’s 18 House members are Republicans, and several have risen to leadership positions.
The state’s U.S. senators, Democrat Bob Casey of Scranton and Republican Pat Toomey of Lehigh Valley, have seats on the Senate Finance Committee.
“The Pennsylvania delegation isn’t what it used be in terms of size, but having a significant presence on key committees certainly helps the state’s overall clout on Capitol Hill. Quality can make up for lack of quantity,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Voters criticized the last Congress for legislative inaction — which President Obama countered with executive orders on climate change and immigration — yet in November voters elected Republican majorities in both chambers to continue to put brakes on his White House, “to limit government, curtail its reach and reduce regulation,” said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
If the new Congress can muster bipartisan support and the president’s signature for bills that matter to Pennsylvanians, the changing political climate in Washington could change things for taxpayers, Madonna said. The key is passing legislation that bolsters Americans’ bank accounts and improves lifestyles and communities — bills dealing with infrastructure projects, agriculture, energy, military spending and health care, for example.
Until now, Pennsylvania’s delegation had lost the clout of seniority that it held for decades until the late 1990s, Madonna said.
“But it begins to come back with this Congress, where you have both House and Senate members on influential committees and subcommittees that are pretty powerful when it comes to economic issues and regulations,” he said.
Casey and Toomey, Madonna said, have earned reputations “as men who get things done.”
Notable House committee assignments include Rep. Bill Shuster of Hollidaysburg as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee; Rep. Tim Murphy of Upper St. Clair in senior position on the House Energy and Commerce Committee as chairman of Oversight and Investigations; Rep. Charlie Dent of the Lehigh Valley on the House Appropriations Committee as subcommittee chair of Military Construction and Veterans Affairs; and Rep. Joe Pitts of Chester County as chairman of the Subcommittee on Health and a member of the Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy.
“You also have (Rep. Glenn) ‘G.T.’ Thompson with a senior position on the Agriculture Committee,” Madonna said about the Centre County Republican, a role with potential to aid Pennsylvania’s billion-dollar farming industry.
Dent told the Tribune-Review that he expects Pennsylvanians will be instrumental in pushing legislation that impacts not just the Keystone State but the country.
“Our delegation has an opportunity to make a difference,” he said.
House leadership agrees.
Recently elected House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said that in terms of overall progress and getting things done, the Pennsylvania delegation is “probably the strongest team in Congress.”
Face-to-face meetings with leaders including McCarthy and Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, help Pennsylvania’s delegation get things done, Thompson said.
“We are considered one of the most effective, and one the leadership has come to rely on, because we work together well as a team,” he said. “We don’t always vote the same way — you are never going to have that — but we talk things out, and because of that, House leadership has our ear and comes to us before a vote is formulated to see what direction legislation might go.”
They intend to build on that influence, Thompson said.
Murphy, a psychologist who advocates for health care reforms, said he intends to push for meaningful legislation such as his Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2013. He hopes the bill, intended to revamp programs and resources on psychiatric care, will pass this year.
“I will reintroduce the legislation with a few tweaks,” Murphy said, noting it gained support from 115 Republican co-sponsors and nearly 40 Democrats.
He has called the nation’s mental health system “embarrassing” and “immoral,” noting that more than 11 million Americans have some sort of mental illness, including depression, but millions go without treatment.
Madonna expects Murphy to demonstrate more influence on energy and environmental issues, areas that affect Western Pennsylvania’s shale gas and coal mining industries.
“This delegation has a real chance to make a meaningful impact this session,” he said, “especially with how they have demonstrated how well they work together.”
To read the entire column by the Pittburgh Tribune-Review‘s Salena Zito, please click here.