Unable to move their colleagues in their direction, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey voted no on the student loan rate bill earlier this week. There was a time when members of Congress from Massachusetts would have crafted such a bill, chaired the committee hearings to consider it, and maneuvered it through both houses. That era is over. Warren is in her seventh month on the job. Markey is even newer — the seventh senator from the Commonwealth in just four years.
This reality puts the Commonwealth in a new and unwelcome political position. The Bay State now ranks last in Senate seniority, and no member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation holds a committee chair or leadership position in either the Senate or the House. For the first time since early 1919, no member of our House delegation has served with a speaker from Massachusetts.
Consider that from 1939 through 2012, a politician from Massachusetts served in one of the following offices: chair of a House or Senate committee, House minority whip, House minority leader, House majority leader, Senate minority whip, and/or speaker of the House. Of the four Massachusetts men to occupy the White House, three — John Adams, Calvin Coolidge, and John F. Kennedy — served a portion of their term with a speaker of the House from their home state — Theodore Sedgwick, Frederick Gillett, and John McCormack.
Senator Edward Kennedy’s death in 2009 ruptured an important historical axis upon which the Commonwealth so depended for its influence. His early terms coincided with the final House terms of John McCormack and Joe Martin, the only members of the delegation to serve under two Massachusetts presidents, Kennedy and Coolidge. Kennedy also served with Leverett Saltonstall, the last Senate Republican from the state to hold a leadership position in that body. Saltonstall’s namesake, his great-grandfather, served in the House with former President John Quincy Adams.
Why does this matter? Seniority, leadership, and clout bring two key benefits: prioritizing federal dollars and articulating political values.
In a state full of institutions competing for scarce research and grant dollars, the loss of clout in Washington is alarming. In this anti-earmark era of retrenchment, there is an increasing need for the type of home-state protection figures like Kennedy or Tip O’Neill could provide.
Less visible but no less important is the ability of the Commonwealth to leave its imprint on federal policy.
Representative Ed Boland and Senator John Kerry used their committee chairs to influence American foreign policy. Ted Kennedy left a historical legacy in areas of health care, education, and civil rights. Tip O’Neill put his stamp on a range of domestic policies and, with Kennedy, on the future of Northern Ireland. And it was through Martin’s House of Representatives that the Marshall Plan became law.
There is no easy solution to our dilemma. It requires the continued cultivation of political leaders who see their futures within the institutions they now call home. There are glimmers of hope that lost clout can be regained. Four senior members of the delegation have shown little desire to leave the House, and have positions on important committees: Richard Neal on Ways and Means, Jim McGovern on Rules, John Tierney on Education and the Workforce, and Niki Tsongas on Armed Services.
In the Senate, Warren is one of those rare junior members whose lack of seniority is, in part, made up for by her widespread recognition in political and policy circles, particularly in the area of Wall Street reform, banking, and student loans.
And though Markey is now the Senate’s most junior member, should he win two full terms (no Massachusetts Democrat seeking a second term has been denied since David Walsh in 1924) he will have served a combined 51 years in Washington, making him the longest-serving Massachusetts federal official ever.
That kind of tenure can provide the space for the continued cultivation of future leaders that Martin, O’Neill, Kennedy, and others viewed as an essential part of their jobs.
It is easily upended through a mixture of future political ambition and potential electoral defeats. Hanging in the balance is the type of leadership Massachusetts has historically provided the nation.