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Washington state gets a new kind of clout in new Congress

January 4, 2019

Washington state will trade clout in leadership for some top positions on a key committee and subcommittee as Democrats regain control of the House of Representatives.

In the November elections for the 116th Congress, the state’s 10-member House delegation gained a Democrat and lost a Republican. It now consists of seven Democrats and three Republicans.

The House delegation is split between men and women. Counting its two women in the Senate, Washington is sending a majority of women to Congress for the first time in history.

Even with the change in control of the House, Washington state remains “well-positioned” as the 116th Congress began work on Thursday, said Casey Katims, the state’s director of federal and inter-state affairs.

“It’s always helpful to have Washington members in higher-ranking positions,” said Katims, who runs the governor’s office in the nation’s capital.

All returning members, regardless of party, gain seniority and clout, said Tim Peckinpaugh, a veteran lobbyist who works for Greater Spokane Inc. “In general, the impact is about the same or slightly better for the state,” he said.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, of Spokane, gave up her leadership position in the House GOP Caucus and said she will concentrate on work in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she is expected to become the top Republican on a subcommittee.

Energy and Commerce is one of the key House committees with broad jurisdiction that includes many areas of health care, foreign trade, education and the environment, Peckinpaugh said. McMorris Rodgers’ decision to focus on legislation and the ability she’s shown to work across the aisle should be a benefit for the Spokane area.

Democratic control in the House means 12-term Rep. Adam Smith, of Bellevue, becomes chairman of the Armed Services Committee, where he served last year as the ranking Democratic member.

The chairmanship is by far the more powerful position because he or she sets the agenda, decides which issues are considered, schedules hearings and determines which witnesses are asked to appear.

“Being in the majority is always preferable,” Katim said.

The Armed Services Committee has jurisdiction over Fairchild Air Force Base and connected issues such as the movement of existing KC-135s to the West Plains base as the Air Force gets more of the new KC-46A air refueling tankers, said Todd Mielke, chief executive officer of GSI.

Although GSI hasn’t yet settled on its federal legislative priorities for 2019, Fairchild is one of the Spokane community’s key employers and the military is the largest portion of discretionary spending in the federal budget, Mielke noted.

Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Everett, is expected to become chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. That panel has jurisdiction over issues involving not just Boeing, the state’s largest manufacturer, but also the growing number of aerospace firms in the Spokane area and the nation’s airports.

Washington is the state most dependent on international trade in the nation, Mielke said. That includes both agricultural products and manufactured goods. Rep. Denny Heck, a Democrat from Olympia, is a member of the Financial Services Committee and has been active in work on the Export-Import Bank, which is key to many trade deals.

Heck is also a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, which is expected to step up investigations of possible ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russia.

Washington is well represented on the House committees that decide how the federal government gets and spends its money.

It has three members on the House Appropriations Committee, Democrat Derek Kilmer, of Tacoma, and Republicans Jaime Herrera Beutler, of Vancouver, and Dan Newhouse, of Yakima. Kilmer and Herrera Beutler will move up in seniority, and Newhouse will too if he doesn’t lose his spot in the shuffle that results from adding seats for Democrats and subtracting them for Republicans.

Rep. Suzan DelBene, a Democrat from Kirkland, gains seniority on the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes, and on the Budget Committee.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Seattle, currently serves on the Budget and Judiciary committees, and is co-chair of the Progressive Caucus and of the Medicare-for-All Caucus. As Congress opened Thursday, Jayapal announced new Speaker Nancy Pelosi will support hearings on single-payer health care legislation.

The delegation’s newest member, Democrat Kim Schrier, of Sammamish, is a physician who campaigned on working to improve health care. Just sworn in Thursday, she’ll likely wait a few weeks to find out her committee assignments after the new majority determines the ratios for each panel and openings are filled.

With a Democratic House and Republicans controlling the Senate and the White House, the ability to find common ground will be important for all members of the state delegation, said Mielke, who previously served in the state Legislature and on the Spokane County commission.

“It’s a recipe for requiring compromise,” he said. “To the extent that you can get consensus, I think that’s a good thing.”

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