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Democrats’ takeover of House could yield big benefits for Washington region

Robert McCartney

Democrats’ takeover of the U.S. House in Tuesday’s election instantly strengthened the Washington region’s deep blue congressional delegation, a change that may advance local goals such as Metro funding, statehood for the District, and protecting federal workers and the Chesapeake Bay.

“It’s the difference between being in the back seat and being the driver,” said Rep. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.), whose district includes much of Montgomery County.

Raskin is one of several Democrats from Maryland and Virginia, together with District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), who are in line for key positions in the House now that they will be in the majority. They will play important roles on committees responsible for investigating the Trump administration, and overseeing federal employees, mass transit and the Justice Department.

The newly empowered legislators are already relishing the opportunity to pass legislation that they think will help the region and that has languished with Republicans on top.

But continued GOP control of the Senate and White House means the overall outcome could instead be partisan stalemate, which could in turn act as a brake on the Washington-area economy, according to Republicans and analysts.

“When we went to divided government back in 2010, look at how dysfunctional Congress was,” George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller said. “There’s going to be uncertainty for two years, and that’s not good for the economy.”

Jack McDougle, chief executive of the nonpartisan Greater Washington Board of Trade, agreed.

“There’s likely to be a certain amount of gridlock,” McDougle said. “At some point, both sides need to take a time out, step up, put aside the political rancor and say, ‘Let’s get things done.’ ”

Given a divided Congress, Democrats’ main role may be defensive. Their victory now enables them to block GOP efforts to cut social spending, end the federal Chesapeake Bay cleanup plan, and dismantle some local military support operations targeted by Republicans, according to legislators and outside analysts.

“Congress is going to be as divisive as ever but without the ability to literally gut every safety net service that is available to the neighbors around us in need,” Rosie Allen-Herring, chief executive of United Way of the National Capital Area, said.

Democrats tightened their grip on the Washington region’s congressional delegation in the election.

While Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine (Va.) and Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) cruised to reelection, Virginia Democrats gained three seats in the House, to flip the state’s representation from a 7-4 GOP advantage to an identical edge favoring the Democrats.

Maryland Democrats preserved their 7-1 advantage in their House delegation.

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who represents Southern Maryland and part of Prince George’s County, is expected to regain his post as House majority leader. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), from the Hampton Roads area, is in line to chair the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) is slated to chair the House Oversight Committee, which is expected to investigate what Democrats see as Trump administration abuses. He will be joined by four other Democrats from the region — Norton, Raskin, Gerald E. Connolly from Northern Virginia and John Sarbanes of Maryland.

Cummings has said the committee will look into President Trump’s tax returns as well as federal dealings involving the Trump International Hotel near the White House.

“This will be a place of some explosive investigations into political corruption . . . all of the improper actions that have taken place over the last couple of years,” Raskin said.

Raskin also is currently the vice-ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, which is expected to hold hearings on Trump’s ouster on Wednesday of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Judiciary also would be the committee to hold hearings and hold an initial vote if the president faced impeachment.

Connolly is in line to chair the Oversight subcommittee on government operations, which oversees issues important to the region including federal employees, federal contracting, District government and some matters related to Metro.

Connolly said there would be a “sea change” in the House’s approach toward the approximately 350,000 federal employees in the region. That means no more efforts to freeze federal workers’ pay, cut pensions and other benefits, and weaken union protections.

“All of the depredations and attacks on federal employees by the Republicans in Congress, even before Trump, get reversed,” Connolly said.

A priority for the regional delegation is extending and increasing federal funding for Metro. The 10-year-old subsidy program expires next year. It has supplied Metro with $150 million a year for capital investment, matched by $50 million apiece from the District, Virginia and Maryland.

Norton will have a say in this, as she is in line to chair the Transportation subcommittee on highways and transit.

“When you see the condition Metro is in, you see the need for 10 more years of capital funding,” Norton said.

Both she and Connolly said they would also push to provide Metro for the first time with federal funds for operating costs, as well as capital investments. They said Metro deserves such support because nearly 40 percent of Metro’s peak-period riders are federal workers.

Norton also will be seeking a full House vote on granting statehood to the District. She successfully obtained a statehood vote there in 1993, where it lost 277-153.

“This time, with a more progressive Democratic majority, we would expect to get more votes,” Norton said.

Jennifer T. Wexton, one of the three Democrats who flipped Republican-held seats in Virginia on Tuesday, said Friday that District residents deserve statehood and she will back Norton.

Norton will also be seeking passage of 16 separate bills to shift some powers from Congress to the District. These include bills to give the District the right to select its own judges and grant the mayor authority to call out the National Guard in case of a hurricane or other emergency.

Rep. Anthony G. Brown (D-Md.), who represents much of Prince George’s, said he would use his seat on the Armed Services Committee to help block GOP efforts to dismantle two large local military employers: the Defense Information Systems Agency at Fort Meade, Md., and the Washington Headquarters administrative body.

Republicans have sought to eliminate them to shift money to combat operations, but Brown said that was shortsighted.

“To suggest that these agencies are not force multipliers and do not support the warfighters, I think, is misguided,” Brown said.

He also said Democrats in Congress would cast a skeptical eye on Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s proposal to transfer control of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway from the Interior Department to the state of Maryland. Hogan (R) wants to do that as part of a plan to add toll lanes to widen the highway.

Republicans dismissed the House Democrats’ hopes for wholesale changes. Dan Scandling, who was an aide to former congressman Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), said, “The Senate will stop everything dead in its tracks.”
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