TAMPA — Florida may now be the third-biggest state by population, and the presidential candidates in 2012 made certain Sunshine State residents knew what a significant role they play in national politics.
But that heft and goodwill doesn’t seem to have paid off in Washington. With the 114th Congress opening this week, just one member of the Florida congressional delegation holds a coveted committee chairmanship and no one from the Sunshine State is in the president’s inner circle.
“It has bothered me since I got here,” said Rep. Dennis Ross, a three-term Republican from Lakeland. “Florida should be leading the charge instead of being in the rear with only one committee chairman. We’ve got a great delegation. We’ve got good people. But we’ve got to assert ourselves more in leadership roles.”
Assignments to 21 House and 20 Senate committees are still being settled in Washington, but members of the local delegation say they’ve been advised where they’ll land in 2015. The process is critical to what legislation is pursued, where tax dollars flow, and to political careers.
“It’s a reflection of our interests, our needs, our concerns, our opportunities,” said Robert McKnight, a Tallahassee political commentator and author of two books on Florida politics. “Ostensibly, the members of Congress represent a congressional district and the will of that district. To the extent that our members are not given the opportunity to rise through to leadership in those committees, I think it’s a slight, it’s an embarrassment, but perhaps most troubling for the country, it’s a lost opportunity. This is a very diverse state that has diverse interests and issues, and for us to blow off that opportunity is a travesty.”
Look no further than the C.W. “Bill” Young Regional Reservoir, the C.W. “Bill” Young VA Medical Center, or the many libraries, educational facilities and bridges that bear the name of the former Appropriations Committee chair to see what a little Capitol clout can do for a metropolitan area. Young, a Republican from Indian Shores, died in 2013.
Of Florida’s 27 representatives and two senators, only Jeff Miller, a Republican from the Panhandle town of Chumuckla, will wield a gavel this year. He continues as chairman of the Veteran’s Affairs Committee, where he oversaw the investigation into long waits and falsified records at VA facilities.
By contrast, Texans will hold six House committee chairmanships this session, and it has been common for California, with the largest state delegation, to hold five.
Around the Tampa Bay area, Rep. Richard Nugent, a Republican from Spring Hill, will serve on the Armed Services Committee, the House Administration Committee, and the Rules committee. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor, will continue on the Energy and Commerce Committee and serve as vice-chair of the Veteran’s Affairs Committee.
Rep. Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, will serve on the Budget and Energy and Commerce committees. Ross sits on the Financial Services committee.
There is some good news for the Tampa Bay area in this year’s assignments: Rep. David Jolly, a Republican from St. Petersburg, received a seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. Jolly said he was “honored and humbled” to land the assignment, calling Appropriations “the ultimate watchdog committee, scrutinizing virtually every federal program, identifying and eliminating duplicative federal services and areas of waste, fraud and abuse.”
Ross, meanwhile, was named senior deputy majority whip, steering legislation to the House floor.
On the Senate side, Republican Marco Rubio will serve on the upper chamber’s Commerce, Science and Transportation, Foreign Relations, Small Business and Entrepreneurship committees and the Select Committee on Intelligence. Democrat Bill Nelson joins him on the Commerce panel, in addition to holding seats on the Armed Services, Finance and Aging committees.
Nelson was set to chair the Commerce committee, but lost that opportunity when Republicans took over the Senate in 2014.
Despite the disappointment over the dearth of committee chairmanships, the Capitol Hill news service Roll Call ranked Florida 2nd in its annual “clout index” for the 113th Congress, behind only California. The news service acknowledged that sheer size consistently kept big states at the top of the list. When Roll Call considered “clout per member,” Florida fell to 33rd.
It is rare for legislators to publicly complain about their assigned roles, and the local delegation appears to be happy with the way things shook out. Ross acknowledged his Financial Services seat is “not the most exciting,” saying when he shifted from the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform earlier “it was like I left the football team and went to the chess team.” But he said he wanted a role in the regulatory environment, which he now has.
Castor said her seat on Energy and Commerce was in league with those of Ways and Means and Appropriations, with very broad jurisdiction. “It’s a very important committee for Florida,” she said.
Meanwhile, McKnight, who served in the Florida House and Senate and on the executive staff of former Gov. Lawton Chiles, said it is unconscionable for the Obama administration to have passed over Florida in shaping the president’s cabinet.
“For this administration, now in its second term, to not have had a Floridian in a key strategic position — particularly after all the pandering after the 2008 election — is an embarrassing slight,” he said.
What can be done to lift Florida’s profile? Lawmakers said Congress is steeped in the tradition of seniority, and it takes time to build that attribute. McKnight scolded some in the Florida delegation for “not being able to maneuver” through the halls of power. Ross noted that leadership positions — speaker, majority leader, and so on — “are elected positions, and those we can start pursuing.”
“I’m disappointed it takes so much time to work your way up the seniority ladder, but I’m also aware that the potential we have as a delegation is very promising,” he said.