Mississippi’s congressional clout will be tested, realigned in the 116th Congress

Published 8:36 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2019

During the 2018 federal election cycle, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other national news organizations examined the question of what they saw as Mississippi’s declining clout on Capitol Hill.

Clearly, the 2018 retirement of 45-year veteran Republican U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran — who held the vastly influential post of Senate Appropriations Committee chairman — represents a tremendous loss of clout for the state. Republicans and Democrats alike statewide recognize that fact.

Couple that loss with the decision by Republican congressional leaders in 2011 to do away with the practice of congressional “earmarks” (allowing lawmakers to direct spending to specific projects in their home states and districts) and Mississippi’s longstanding ability to attract federal funding for a myriad of state projects is significantly impaired.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

The development calls to mind the heady days in 1987 when Mississippi’s Democratic U.S. Sen. John C. Stennis of DeKalb and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jamie Whitten of Charleston chaired the Appropriations Committee in both houses of Congress.

In those days, federal earmarks flowed to Mississippi in the form of defense spending, highway funds, rural water and sewer projects, agricultural subsidies, research and development, and a host of other projects. While Stennis chaired Appropriations, Cochran also held a seat on the committee as the ranking Republican on the Agriculture Subcommittee.

With various degrees of support from both House Republicans and Democrats and from the Trump Administration, earmarks may well be making a comeback in the 116th Congress when Democrats return to control of the House. But that’s another story for another day.

Fast forward to the 116th Congress after Cochran’s retirement. Losing the Appropriations chair is huge, yes, but Mississippi still has some Capitol Hill assets. Two chairmanships and multiple seats on Appropriations, Agriculture, and Armed Services offer stability from the state’s delegation.

Serving since 2007, senior Mississippi U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Tupelo, will chair the Senate Commerce Committee in the 116th Congress and will retain his seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he is the second-ranked GOP member and chairs the Sea Power Subcommittee. In the 115th Congress, Wicker also held seats on the Environment and Public Works and Rules committees.

Junior U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, R-Brookhaven, holds seats on the Appropriations Committee, Agriculture Committee, and Rules Committee, which represent extraordinary assignments for a first-year senator whose seniority began in 2018.

In the House, Second District Democratic U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson of Bolton will assume the chairmanship of the House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson, with 25 years seniority, is the state’s longest-serving member of Congress with seniority beginning in 1993.

Fourth District Republican U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo of Gulfport holds a seat on the House Appropriations Committee and serves on three subcommittees: Agriculture; Commerce; and Legislative Branch. His seniority began in 2011.

First District GOP U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly of Tupelo holds seats on the House Armed Services Committee, the House Agriculture Committee, and the House Small Business Committee. His seniority began in 2015 after the death of former U.S. Rep. Alan Nunnelee.

Third District Republican U.S. Rep. Michael Guest of Brandon, who will succeed the retiring Congressman Gregg Harper, is Mississippi’s newest member of Congress and his seniority will begin on Jan. 3, 2019. His committee assignments are pending.

The Washington-based Roll Call news organization compiles a state-by-state “clout index” in each Congress. During the 115th Congress, Mississippi’s ranking was No. 19 in a state that ranked 32nd in population. It will be instructive to see where the state ranks in the 116th Congress.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com