The 26th's MillIon Dollar Question
by Bruce Fisher
The poor, isolated, flood-prone community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania, is represented in Washington by Congressman John Murtha, a 34-year veteran of the House of Representatives. In its recent report on Murtha, the Wall Street Journal said that his “earmarks”—the special federal funds that he obtained for his district—amounted to over $150 million in 2007 alone. The subtitle of the article says it all: “Johnstown gets billions with power broker’s aid.” Murtha’s specialty: appropriating federal funds for the many defense contractors that employ tens of thousands of workers in Johnstown.
Whatever you believe about the members of Congress who represent the Buffalo area in Washington, the numbers are clear: This region, unlike Johnstown, does not have that kind of clout in Washington.
If what this community seeks is its own version of John Murtha as the woman or man to succeed retiring member Tom Reynolds, there is only one route to the goal: to elect somebody young and wait. But even waiting might not be enough, because the district Reynolds now holds will almost certainly be redrawn after the upcoming Census in 2010.
In 2008, we will be electing a representative to a district that may disappear in just four years.
Demography, then the question
The Constitution mandates that every 10 years, the map that defines congressional districts must be redrawn. Each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives has a district of approximately equal population. But as population growth has shifted to the Sun Belt, the number of Congressional representatives for the Great Lakes, the Great Plains and, specifically, for Upstate New York, has shrunk, and will continue to shrink.
New York had 39 members of Congress in 1970. Today New York has 29 representatives. After 2012, there will probably be 28 members, or maybe even 27. The area west and north of the New York metro area is losing population, while the New York metro area remains steady and the Sun Belt gains.
After 2012, there may be only three House members who represent the urban areas of Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, and one for the Southern Tier stretching from Chautauqua County to Binghamton.
One traditional measure of the effectiveness of a Member of Congress has been the Murtha measure—how much money the Member brings home, and what the money funds.
Representative Louise Slaughter, the most senior member of the regional Congressional delegation, has put her clout to use for Rochester, to be sure. But as chair of the Rules Committee, she hasn’t been an appropriator like Murtha, whose clout funds jobs in the defense industry, specifically within his district. Slaughter’s signature advocacies have been increasing research funds for breast cancer and for increased Justice Department focus on violence against women.
Congressman Brian Higgins hasn’t been in Congress long enough to lay his hands on much money—although he was a key negotiator in obtaining a revenue stream that will eventually be worth more than $250 million in funds from the relicensing of the Niagara Power Project. Sadly, the state agency that controls that money now is pledging it to a retail development—not to defense contracts that would bring hundreds or thousands of scientists and high-tech workers here; not to basic science research that would amplify the SUNY’s plan to become nationally competitive by 2020; not even to a big Homeland Security project, but rather to a retail complex (a Bass Pro store) and a road re-do.
Serious Washington money usually comes only one way: through seniority. The ways of Congress transcend party, as evidenced by Tom Reynolds’s career: Five-term Republican Tom Reynolds obtained a trickle of earmarks, even while Republicans ran the House, compared to 17-term Democrat John Murtha. Seniority is the single most important determinant in obtaining funds for individual projects in individual Congressional districts.
So whether or not we are going to use the Murtha measure, we have to answer hard questions: What does this region need, and on what timetable—and if we measure up to Murtha, what kind of bacon will we task our next member of Congress with trying to bringing home?
A Congressional goal:
Get us off the dole
The region this next member of Congress will represent has been losing people since 1970. Yet this same region has three major graduate-level universities (UB, Rochester and RIT), two medical schools and almost two dozen colleges.
Notwithstanding this wealth of intellectual resources, the region is the poster child of bad planning and self-interested leadership.
And notwithstanding the enduring myth of upstanding Upstate being burdened by decadent Downstate, we’re on the dole. According to a 2004 joint report by the Center for Government Research and the New York City Budget office (www.cgr.org), Upstate New York gets more than $4 billion more in New York State tax dollars than it pays in to state government.
Most of that money comes to us in the form of transfer payments—Medicaid, general welfare, support for indigent children and elderly. Big chunks of money aid suburban school districts. Some actually does us all good by supporting the State University of New York’s various campuses. But almost $2 billion flows to the thousands of municipal entities that our political class insists on sustaining.
The numbers tell the story: Taxpayers in the five boroughs of New York City, and in the suburban counties of the lower Hudson and Long Island, foot the bill for all the welfare (and every other state service) for everybody who lives north and west of Westchester.
But it’s worse than that. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan never tired of pointing out, in his annual reports on “the Federal Fisc,” the New York Metro area also funds the rest of America. New York State taxpayers altogether fork over much more money to the federal government than the federal government sends back.
Our next member of Congress
Tie it all together, and this is what you get:
■ This region has had ineffective Congressional representation—using the Murtha measure of job-creating “earmarks”—but is about to choose a new member;
■ This region is on state welfare, but, paradoxically, is part of a state that sends Washington more money than it gets back;
■ This region actually does get federal money—like the Power Authority settlement—but then watches New York State turn it over to folks who don’t follow the job-creation practices of the champions of Congressional earmarking, like Johnstown, Pennsylvania’s Murtha, whose hundreds of millions of dollars produce good-quality jobs that would otherwise be done in the Sun Belt.
Our next member of Congress, and his or her delegation, should have two goals: Help Upstate New York become more economically self-sustaining; and help get the Sun Belt’s hands out of New York City’s pockets.
If our delegation shrinks so small that they can’t out-clout the Sun Belt, then at least our representatives should get us some Murtha money so that Upstate New York needs less of Manhattan’s.