WASHINGTON -- Congress is about to get serious about the federal budget, and members of the Pennsylvania delegation will be at the heart of politically charged talks likely to consume Washington this spring.
Both senators from Pennsylvania were recently named to the Finance Committee. Republican Pat Toomey also serves on the Senate Budget Committee.
On the House side, Pennsylvanians hold three seats on Ways and Means, two on the Appropriations Committee and one on Budget.
Some larger states, such as California and Texas, have more members on those committees while other states aren't represented on them at all.
"It's certainly helpful to Pennsylvania," to have members on important committees grappling with revenue and spending issues, said Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, who is a member of the House Budget and Ways and Means committees.
"We want to bring the Pennsylvania perspective in a way that helps our health care sector and our energy sector. We hope we can make a big difference," she said.
The committees grapple with the country's most pressing economic issues, including how to overhaul the tax code, spend the revenue and improve the economy. Their work will have a lasting effect on the country.
"These are big decisions that involve the funding of major priorities," said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who is a member of Senate Finance and chairman of the Joint Economic Committee, a bicameral advisory body that studies fiscal issues.
Mr. Casey said Pennsylvania lawmakers are well positioned to lead the nation through an economic recovery.
"We come from a state with a lot of different priorities and a lot of shifts in our economy over time," he said.
Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, says he tries to apply Pennsylvania sensibilities to federal policy deliberations on the Ways and Means Committee.
"We want to help shape policy in a way that makes sense for Pennsylvania," said Mr. Kelly, a car dealer from Butler who was first elected in 2010. "We recognize that we're in a historical moment right now" as the country emerges from recession.
Philadelphia Democrat Chaka Fattah, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said Pennsylvania's increased representation on key committees will benefit institutions across the state from universities to manufacturers to neuroscience laboratories.
"These are exclusive committees," Mr. Fattah said.
"When you have members well-positioned, state interests can be heard at the highest levels. It doesn't necessarily mean we win on every issue, but it does mean the door can be opened and there's an opportunity for Pennsylvania to be heard and considered at the very highest levels," he said.
An eye on Pa.'s interests
That's important to the political machine back home, too.
"These committees have a great deal of influence on the outcome of legislation," said Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. "It's an opportunity to make sure our interests are being attended to."
Those interests, he said, include repealing the medical device tax, which would help manufacturers, who have a strong presence in the state.
On the Appropriations Committee, Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Allentown, says he will be looking to protect graduate medical education, an important staple in the Lehigh Valley. He'll also be looking to help the energy sector develop now that Pennsylvania has become a key player in the natural gas industry, and he's keeping an eye out for the National Guard base at Fort Indiantown Gap outside of Harrisburg.
A lot of other areas of his focus -- such as block grants and defense spending -- aren't so different from those of colleagues from other states.
The committee touches all areas of federal discretionary spending.
There aren't enough dollars to go around in this struggling economy so decisions are hard. Stakeholders, for the most part, are understanding, Mr. Dent said.
"They know they aren't going to see increases in spending. Most people that come see me are just trying to protect what they already have or trying to prevent too deep a cut," he said.
Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Chester, serves with Mr. Kelly and Ms. Schwartz on Ways and Means, where members are working to overhaul the tax code.
Mr. Gerlach said he is focused on how proposed changes might affect manufacturing.
"The tax code is getting more and more complicated and compliance is becoming very, very expensive," he said. "Overall, the goals of the committee are shared by our folks in Pennsylvania who want more simplicity and more equity in the tax code."
Pennsylvania is a strong manufacturing state that also has many businesses in the financial, biomedical and biotechnical fields, the delegation keeps an eye out for the interests of those sectors, he said.
"While most states have the same kind of interests, we're one of the large ones so these reforms are especially important," Mr. Gerlach said.
Lawmakers say they try to keep a broad perspective on what's good for the country while making sure state needs aren't neglected.
Still, they're far more likely to strategize with their own party members than with cross-party Pennsylvania colleagues serving on the same committee.
Membership on powerful committees such as Budget, Finance and Ways and Means gives states more clout, said Mary Ellen Balchunis, a professor of political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia.
"If you're sitting at the table, you have a say in what's going to be in the bill, so that's really critical," she said.
It depends, though, on whether Congress goes through prescribed methods of passing legislation instead of circumventing committees and taking bills straight to the floor or passing short-term solutions instead of full budget bills.
"It's much better to run the government through the regular order of business as opposed to getting into the short-term solutions and continuing resolutions," leading to deep automatic cuts scheduled to take effect March 1.
Mr. Toomey said he's through with temporary fixes and, like other Republicans, he's ready to allow the cuts -- known collectively as "the sequester" -- to go through in order to force a real solution that involves permanent spending cuts.
He said he's glad to have Pennsylvania well represented on the committees responsible for crafting economic policy.
"These committees really have a great deal of influence on the outcome of legislation," he said.
Mr. Gerlach said he hopes so.
"We've got a lot of members on these committees and both senators on Finance, so we think we can have a big impact on what the final product looks like," he said.
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: email@example.com or 703-996-9292. First Published February 24, 2013 5:00 AM