State coming to grips with loss of clout in Washington

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Arlen Specter's pending departure from the Senate and the February death of Rep. John P. Murtha represent a double blow to the ability of the region and the state to attract federal dollars.

Gov. Ed Rendell, an ally of both lawmakers, called the impact of the twin loss "incalculable."

"Pennsylvania will lose in the space of a year the two of the most effective people the Commonwealth ever had in Washington, D.C.," he said. "And that's not meant as any denigration of the new Congressman [Mark] Critz, or [Rep. Joe] Sestak or [former Rep. Pat] Toomey, but no freshman can come close to replacing their influence in getting federal dollars for Pennsylvania or stopping bad things from happening."

Between them, the two veterans had amassed decades of seniority on the appropriations panels in the House and Senate, the crucial arbiters of congressional spending bills. With that longevity came their ability to steer millions of dollars to myriad state and local interests, ranging from the military industrial complex in microcosm around Mr. Murtha's Johnstown home base to medical and scientific research at the region's universities.

In his memoir, "Passion for Truth," Mr. Specter recounts the suspense and gamesmanship as the new senators elected in 1980 jockeyed for committee assignments.

"One seat remained on Appropriations when my turn came, and I grabbed it," he wrote.

"It's a huge loss; there's no question," said former U.S. Rep Phil English, the Erie Republican. "Murtha and Specter were not run-of-the-mill appropriators. They carried more than their weight. They were both profound students of the process ... clearly local institutions benefitted and Pitt and CMU were at the top of that list."

"If you lose a House appropriator and a Senate appropriator, you've lost the sort of magic key to the Treasury," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University scholar who has written widely on Congress. "Between the two of them, they could deliver quite a number of earmarks."

From their perches on the two spending committees, the lawmakers could deliver the traditional earmarks -- the sometimes controversial grants to specific projects that have been under so much scrutiny in recent years. Perhaps more importantly, they could shape broader federal funding streams in ways that benefitted their constituents.

Mr. Rendell credited Mr. Specter and Mr. Murtha with coming up with $50 million in job training funding which was the final piece in luring a private shipbuilder to partially revive the old Philadelphia Navy Yard.

"There are 1,200 people making ships in Philadelphia because of the two of them working in tandem," he said.

Mr. Rendell noted that more recently Mr. Specter was successful in adding some $10 billion to the allocation for the National Institutes of Health in the Obama administration's economic stimulus bill last year.

"That's money that he knew would find its way to Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh and Hershey," he said, referring to the state's centers of medical research.

Former Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy called the two lawmakers assets to the entire state. The senator "was very responsive to the region, as was Murtha," Mr. Murphy said. Though he and Mr. Specter were members of different parties at the time, the Democratic mayor said, "I actually endorsed him for re-election.''

Mr. Murphy said Mr. Murtha used his power as chairman of the Defense subcommittee of Appropriations to benefit projects well beyond his district's border.

"He understood that Pittsburgh was the big star in the Western Pennsylvania firmament; it was important for the whole region to make Pittsburgh grow.''

Former Rep. Bill Coyne, the Oakland Democrat, said both Mr. Murtha and Mr. Specter, along with the late Sen. John Heinz, were instrumental in the public-private campaign in the mid-1980s to persuade the Defense Department to choose CMU as the site of the Software Engineering Institute.

"Specter was very effective on appropriations for Western Pennsylvania,'' Mr. Coyne said. "His office and he were good to deal with.''

Keith Schmidt, a public and government affairs consultant who was formerly state director for Sen. Rick Santorum, said the loss of Mr. Murtha and the departure of Mr. Specter at the close of his term were the closing chapters to a longer story of state congressional clout. He pointed to the previous losses of long-serving and influential members such as Reps. E.G. "Bud" Shuster and Joseph McDade.

"You could argue that pretty much all of that has gone away," he said. "The old-school guys who were vote counters and deal makers, who were influences on both sides of the aisle, who could say, 'OK, we can figure out how to take care of this thing in Des Moines if you can help me out on that thing in Erie.'

"Now that was for good or for ill," he said. "There's a legitimate debate on the bad side of that kind of longevity, but the process paid off in literally billions of dollars in aid to Pennsylvania ''

Mr. Schmidt said that the impact of the departures would be felt more keenly over time.

"You appropriate forward," he said. "We're not going to really feel this for two years or five years, but then we may feel it for a generation."

Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, acknowledged the loss but said that the state's delegation would remain a force in Congress.

"Listen, there's no question it hurts when you lose Jack Murtha and Arlen Specter, but it's not the end of the world,'' he said.

Mr. Doyle is one of the more senior Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, traditionally one of the chamber's more influential panels because of its wide jurisdiction. He pointed out that the state's 19-person contingent has other members in coveted committee seats. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, is a member of the Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over taxation. Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia, is a veteran on appropriations and Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Bucks County, has just been tapped for a spot on that panel as well.

Republican losses in the last two elections cycles cost the state seats on some of the more powerful panels. Former Reps. Melissa Hart, R-McCandless, who lost in 2006, was a member of Ways and Means as was Mr. English, who lost his Erie seat to Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper.

"In Western Pennsylvania, we have an enormous stake in Medicare reimbursements," Mr. English said, explaining how committee seats can translate to local benefits. "When I was on Ways and Means, I was able to bring in literally tens of millions in improved funding for local hospitals and other providers.''

Mr. Doyle emphasized that local institutions such as major universities and teaching hospitals would continue to benefit from federal dollars.

"The key question is do these institutions do work that is worthy of federal support -- the answer is yes," he said.

As an example, Mr. Doyle cited the delegation's bipartisan support for a bid by UPMC and a variety of private partners to create a vaccine manufacturing facility with a price tag in the hundreds of millions near the Pittsburgh International Airport.

"That's on track; that's going to be a competition, not an earmark. That won't stop. These institutions get a lot of money in peer-reviewed processes," Mr. Doyle said.

"It's fair to say that where Pittsburgh is concerned, this is not going to be as big an issue,'' he added. "[But] certainly, it's going to have some impact in Johnstown.''

Bob Shark, of Johnstown Regional Industries, a business development group, maintains that on a smaller scale Johnstown has used the many earmarks that Mr. Murtha unapologetically provided to create a critical mass of defense and related business expertise that would allow it to prosper without its deep-pocketed patron.

"What Murtha did for the broader Western Pennsylvania economy was remarkable,'' said Mr. Murphy, the former Pittsburgh mayor. "He drove a lot of money to the universities, to things like the robotics and defense stuff at CMU."

Mr. Murphy acknowledged the perennial debate over the propriety of pork barrel spending with limited government resources but said, "I was never into pork when I was a legislator, I didn't believe in it. But when I became mayor, I loved it."


Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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