Politically Thinking: Welch's clout could take a major hit

<p class="Bodycopy">Congressman Peter Welch will almost certainly be re-elected to a third term in November. Like many incumbent House members, Welch has built up a strong political organization with the financial resources to match. Welch’s campaign has already raised more than $1 million. His campaign bank account is 100 times larger than that of any of the three Republicans seeking the congressional nomination in the Aug. 24 primary.</p> <p class="Bodycopy">The shape of Welch’s career in 2011 and 2012 will be determined by voters in other states, not by voters in Vermont. Will enough Republican House candidates win this November so that when Congress reconvenes in January, Welch will be in the minority party for the first time in his congressional career?</p> <p class="Bodycopy">The president’s party almost always loses seats in the House in midterm elections. The poor performance of the economy over the past two years makes 2010 a very challenging political environment for Democratic House candidates, especially those representing districts where George W. Bush or John McCain won recent presidential elections. Democratic candidates are facing an enthusiasm gap as well. Polls show that Republican voters are much more energized by the midterm elections.</p> <p class="Bodycopy">Most Washington-based handicappers of congressional elections believe that the Republicans will gain at least 30 seats in the House, but whether the GOP will pick up the 39 seats needed to win a majority is an open question. Momentum appears to be with the Republicans, however, and the political futures markets, which have been very accurate predictors of previous elections, give the GOP about a 55 percent chance of having a majority of the House in 2011.</p> <p class="Bodycopy">How would Peter Welch’s House career be affected if he were a member of the minority party come January? Over the past four years, Welch has become a respected member among his colleagues. His success has depended upon being an ally of senior Democrats, such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Henry Waxman of California, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, of which Welch is a member. Welch has used his proximity to the leadership and his mastery of the House’s procedural rules (a skill he developed as president pro tem of the Vermont Senate) to make effective use of the amending process to add provisions to legislation that are important to him — for example, limits on debit card swipe fees or tax incentives for energy-saving home improvements.</p> <p class="Bodycopy">Members of the minority party in the Senate are able to use that chamber’s rules to considerable effect — as the Republicans have demonstrated over the past two years with their frequent resort to filibusters. In the House, however, the rules are written to advantage the majority party. Members of the minority party are limited in the amendments they can offer, and most important bills are passed by the House on party-line votes. If the Republicans take control of the House this fall, they will be as aggressive in using the rules to their advantage as the Democrats have been since 2007.</p> <p class="Bodycopy">Welch’s political influence would be significantly lower in a Republican House than it has been for the past four years. His patrons, Pelosi and Waxman, will not have the power to control floor and committee proceedings. The likely chair of the Energy Committee, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas (the congressman who apologized to BP because he said the government strong-armed it into setting up a $20 billion Gulf Coast compensation fund) is not going to have much time for the proposals of a northeastern progressive such as Welch.</p> <p class="Bodycopy"><em>Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.</em></p>

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