News Analysis

by Drew Phelps

Jeff Denham, the U.S. Representative from California’s 10th Congressional District near Modesto, has quite a bit on his plate.

From immigration and a DACA fix to his own reelection campaign, the Republican Denham is dealing with a diverse agenda.

Below the surface, however, he has been his jockeying for appointment as the chairman of the influential House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Denham has been more public about his positioning recently, telling the LA Times a few weeks ago:

“This is a committee I’ve really shown a great deal of leadership on, but as chairman I’ll be in a better position to fight for California’s needs as well as [needs] across the country.”

Denham vs. Rep. Graves for the Gavel

One of two candidates vying for the position, it appears that Denham is the underdog. His opponent is Missouri Rep. Sam Graves. Graves has served nine terms to Denham’s four and leads the Highways and Transit subcommittee, the most prestigious transportation subcommittee. Denham chairs the Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials subcommittee.

The process to gain the chairmanship is political, with candidates spending months gathering support from other members of the House.

The process, while competitive, is also collegial and traditional. Of Graves, Denham said, “He’s a friend. We’re going toward this from a very cordial standpoint of two friends that are fighting for the same thing.”

Despite the challenge posed by Graves, Denham has plenty of reasons to feel good about his chances of being selected.

His close relationship with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is vital because McCarthy helps facilitate a good deal of Republican behind-the-scenes action.

Throw in his own political acumen and party loyalty, and Denham stands a solid chance of being chosen to lead the committee — if the Republicans retain control of the House in the mid-term elections.

“This is a committee I’ve really shown a great deal of leadership on, but as chairman I’ll be in a better position to fight for California’s needs as well as [needs] across the country.” — Rep. Jeff Denham

If selected, Denham would wield considerable power. Committee chairs have the ability to set the committees’ agendas, thus determining which bills are heard and brought to vote and which languish.

He would also be the first Transportation Committee chair from the Central Valley.

According to the LA Times report, Denham would use the position to bring more projects and dollars to California projects, and to the Central Valley in particular. One of his primary goals would be improving water storage for those in the Valley and ratepayers across the state.

Earmarks Could Sweeten the Deal

Even beyond the already-immense responsibility and power of setting the committee agenda, a recent proposal by President Trump to return to the controversial earmark system could grow the power of Denham’s chairmanship exponentially if it materializes into policy.

Earmarks were raised by Trump as a way to add another layer of deal-making to legislation and thus (hopefully) incentivize Congress into more productivity.

Earmarks, also known as pork-barrel spending, were controversial because, while “greasing the wheels” of legislation, they also created questionable Congressional spending habits.

The practice usually consists of lawmakers trading their votes on a bill they may otherwise oppose in exchange for some funding from the new program going toward a project in their district. They can thus capitalize, by taking credit for the funding in the district and impressing voters, on something they would otherwise be unlikely to support.

Earmarks, also known as pork-barrel spending, were controversial because, while “greasing the wheels” of legislation, they also created questionable Congressional spending habits. Critics argued that the earmark process created a system in which projects were approved based on whose district they were in and how hard their representative lobbied rather than the merits of the project.

At their lowest, earmarks were derided by the public as a key symbol of shady dealing in Washington. In one instance, former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham took bribes in exchange for earmarks and spent seven years in prison.

Republicans finally did away with the practice in 2011.

However, Congress is now holding hearings reconsidering the earmark system, making its return more likely.

Regardless of the pros and cons, a reversion to earmarks would undoubtedly be a positive development for Denham if he receives the chairmanship.

On one hand, Denham would have greater ability to apportion project funding to local activities, strengthening Central Valley communities with new infrastructure and the jobs it brings.

On the other, Denham’s power as a dealmaker would skyrocket. He would be in charge, not only of which earmarks are apportioned but also of which projects are even subject to approval. Almost anyone seeking an infrastructure project in their district would have to go through Denham.

Especially considering the fact that most earmark spending comes in the form of infrastructure dollars, Denham would be in a position of immense power.

Stars Must Align

All of this conjecture assumes that the stars align perfectly.

In addition to Denham’s selection as committee chair and the return to the earmark system, another hurdle that must be cleared is Denham’s reelection in 2018 – hardly a given.

Based on the makeup of his district, Denham’s reelection hopes could ride on whether the federal government is able to make any inroads with immigration legislation, particularly on DACA, or (ironically) an infrastructure program.

A number of commentators have highlighted Denham, who represents a particularly tenuous district (Democrats hold a registration advantage of approximately 8,000 voters), as vulnerable in what is expected to be an especially competitive election year.

Denham faces a broad field of challengers – of whom a few stand a serious chance – and risks being tied to President Trump in his heavily Latino district.

His victory in 2016 over returning candidate Michael Eggman was narrow: Denham won with about an 8,000-vote margin.

However, this was also in a presidential election year, in which Democrats typically turn out at higher proportions than they do in midterm years like 2018.

Based on the makeup of his district, Denham’s reelection hopes could ride on whether the federal government is able to make any inroads with immigration legislation, particularly on DACA, or (ironically) an infrastructure program.

These policies would also likely help House Republicans keep control of the chamber following the 2018 elections. Without any significant policy victories, Republicans will likely have little to run on and, if the House flips to Democrat control or Denham loses, the contents of this article will no longer matter.

Ultimately though, if these underlying assumptions are filled and Denham receives the appointment as chair, the Valley can expect growth in its already outsized influence as a hub of Congressional power.

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