WASHINGTON - The political landscape changed dramatically in 2010 for Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pa., the audacious, skip-to-his-own-beat Philadelphia lawmaker hoping for tightened polls that evening — just enough to hold off an expected Republican takeover of the House.
His original plan was to embark on an ambitious, long shot bid for Chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, overseeing $1.4 trillion in discretionary funding and finding ways to push education as a top priority.
As the Grand Old Party amassed big gains that night, plans changed.
That didn’t really deter Fattah from his dream to run things on “Approps” as Capitol Hill rats affectionately abbreviate it. He simply went into minority ranking member mode, still intent on openly defying the Democratic Party’s Congressional seniority system.
Selection based on years served seemed like a simple formula long observed by Democrats. It worked to the favor of the quiet and senescent Rep. Norm Dicks, D-WA, who was next in line after retiring Appropriations Chair Rep. David Obey, D-WI.
Hopes for ranking member glory were dashed, however, when Fattah’s own Congressional Black Caucus gave the appearance of an endorsement for Dicks, who is White and has served in the House since 1976. It was a saddening and unexpected blow to Fattah, himself a longtime CBC Member.
“Members of the Congressional Black Caucus strongly support maintaining the seniority system for selecting committee leadership. The seniority system has served the Democratic Caucus well and has ushered in an era of diverse committee leadership, which is an asset to our party and our nation,” current CBC Chairwoman Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said in a statement released by POLITICO.
But, CBC spokesman J. Jioni Palmer disputes the authenticity of that statement. Dismissive of the reports and flatly denying any Caucus endorsement of Dicks, Palmer seemed annoyed by the question. “Reporters don’t know everything,” he retorted.
Still, observers argue that it makes sense, a shrewd and calculated move by the Caucus to ensure the integrity of the seniority system. Without it, many CBC Members wouldn’t have had their chance to chair influential committees: from Bennie Thompson, D-MI, on Homeland Security to Charlie Rangel, D-NY, formerly chairing Ways and Means.
The venerable Rep. John Conyers, D-MI, is still stone locked into Judiciary and Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-NY, held on as Chair of Government Reform. Turning on a native son to save the family seemed like an essential move since many CBC Members have been in the Congress long enough to assume an impressive number of leadership roles on influential committees.
At the end of the Democratic-led 111th Congress, there are four CBC House Committee Chairs and 18 subcommittee chairs. When Republicans take control in January, most — if not all — will transition into the Ranking Member role.
Fattah, however, was congratulatory in a statement on Dicks’ win. “I look forward to working with him and our colleagues on the Appropriations Committee to advance an agenda for the American people. I know that our leadership team, led by Norm, will be united as we head into the 112th Congress.”
And, in a conversation with the Tribune, he seemed pleased with his conciliation prize: ranking member of House Appropriation’s subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, a decent look worth $70 billion in discretionary funding and a chance to transcend the urban politics typically associated with Philly’s most senior Congressional Member.
“Competition is a good thing,” said Fattah, particularly jovial that the controversial tax cut deal he endorsed in opposition to the CBC was about to pass.
But, the CBC remains in a state of constant, traumatic flux, struggling to regain or maintain influence on a scarred post-midterm battlefield. After weeks of uncertainty and a mountain of speculation, Towns suddenly withdrew himself from consideration as Ranking Member of the Government Reform Committee.