Our Congress Gang Defeated, Depressed in Bush-Run Capital

WASHINGTON–In an ornate meeting room on Capitol Hill, New York’s delegation to Congress gathered recently for its monthly lunchtime get-together. On the agenda was a Beltway chestnut: how the delegation could work together, despite partisan differences, to bring more federal dollars back home.

After 40 minutes of a somewhat predictable routine–mostly members requesting one or more spending projects for his or her district–Senator Hillary Clinton, the eager newcomer to these informal sessions, took her turn to speak.

“We have too many projects and requests for funding out there,” she announced, according to members and staff who were in the room. “What we should really do is get together and concentrate on the three or four things that are really important to the state, like fixing the watershed, or building the Second Avenue Subway or the East Side [Long Island Rail Road] connector, or Interstate 86 or the [upstate] rooftop highway. These are the things that can really save the state money in the long run.”

There was a pause. The members of the state’s House delegation glanced up from their plates of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese to stare at the Senator, and at each other. The newcomer’s earnest plea for teamwork was almost shocking.

“In that case,” said Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel, the wisecracking dean of the delegation, “I think that the first priority for New York State should be improving the Apollo Theater.”

The other Representatives laughed.

“Wait a minute,” said Long Island Republican Peter King in mock outrage, “you already got that new guy [Bill Clinton] moving in on 125th Street.”

“Yeah,” said Mrs. Clinton, finally joining in, “isn’t it enough that I got my husband to move his office up there?”

Laughs all around.

Given what life is like for New York’s U.S. Senators and Representatives these days, it shouldn’t be surprising that a meeting called to discuss the federal appropriations process devolved into comedy. The joke, of course, is that Bill Clinton’s office in Harlem is about the only new federal spending project New York is likely to receive in the near future. So it would be hard to begrudge the politicians a moment or two of levity at a time when an indifferent President, a hostile Congress, an apathetic press corps and the looming elimination of two of New York’s 31 Congressional seats has ground the Empire State delegation into something like collective depression.

“The White House has this regional disregard for New York; we’ve got less power than we ever have in Congress, and we’re about to lose two more seats,” said one House staff member. “We’re not doing anything here. We’ve all just got this nasty feeling of impotence.”

Within the corridors of the federal government, New York has become a sort of New World Vienna–a hulking and unwieldy shell of its former self. Washingtonians look to New York for its style, its peculiar charm and its history, but not for its political power. And so New Yorkers in Washington are grappling with this new reality: a President who cares little about the state’s parochial interests, a Congress whose leadership tilts west and south, and the looming specter of continued shrinkage as two more seats are swallowed up in the remorseless reconfiguration of the nation’s power map.

“This is a terrible environment for us down here,” Democratic Representative Gregory Meeks of Queens said. “We’re watching New York get devastated.”

Democrat Gary Ackerman, who represents portions of Queens and Long Island, was more succinct about the state’s plight. “It sucks,” he said. “This is definitely not a happy thing.”

It wasn’t that long ago–slightly more than 100 days, to be precise–that things seemed considerably different. Long before Bill Clinton actually became a New Yorker, he acted like one, surrounding himself with people like Harold Ickes, Bernard Nussbaum and Andrew Cuomo, all of whom provided a certain entrée to legislators when they needed a hand or a helpful leak that would give them an edge on the competition. Mr. Clinton himself was in regular contact with such Democrats as Charlie Rangel and Carolyn Maloney, and even developed an enduring friendship with Republicans like Mr. King.

Mr. Bush has been quite different.

“New York liked Bill Clinton, whereas Bush probably knows this is a major state he’s not carrying,” said Mr. King, who is known to Mr. Bush as “Pedro.” “Political realities are that Presidents reward states that vote for them. He certainly won’t kill himself to help New York out.” (Ken Lisaius, a White House spokesman, said: “This President is the President of all 50 states. They’re all treated equally.”)

If the initial Bush budget is any indication, New York may get hit every bit as hard as feared. Funding for mass transit, public housing and social services has been cut, and funding formulas for other big-ticket items would be altered to place the cost burden much more heavily on localities. While these cuts are consistent with the Bush administration’s wish to shrink the federal government, they will have a disproportionate impact on New York, which relies heavily on such expenditures.

Already, many members of Congress seem to be preparing for more of the same. “Things are only going to get tighter for us,” said Manhattan Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who gained some national notice as one of Mr. Clinton’s chief defenders during the impeachment crisis. “This administration won’t be paying attention to New York.”

If the Bush White House has given the delegation something of a persecution complex, the treatment accorded New Yorkers in the House has only added to the growing sense of victimhood. Moderate New York Republicans like Ben Gilman and Amo Houghton, to say nothing of the state’s Democrats, are regularly given short shrift by the House leadership. “The people that are calling the shots in Congress are still the Gingrich crowd–[Dick] Armey and [Tom] DeLay,” said Mr. Ackerman. “They don’t talk to us. These are the same guys that turned New York into a code word for all kinds of things. They think New York City has two boroughs–Sodom and Gomorrah.” (Mr. Armey and Mr. DeLay are both from Texas; Mr. Ackerman is a part-time stand-up comedian.)

As a result, expectations seem to be lowered. “I think we’re still feeling our way around,” said Bronx Democrat Eliot Engel. “We’re trying to adjust to a new reality.”

And a part of that new reality is the presence of Hillary Rodham Clinton, who (not always willingly) soaks up the media spotlight. Mrs. Clinton’s presence overshadows everything and everybody, which means that her House colleagues can no longer count on coverage when they call a press conference to introduce legislation or angrily denounce something–anything–in the spectacular language known to produce headlines and sound bites. This is no small issue, because the Sunday press conference or the well-timed press release allows members of Congress to promote pet causes back home and keep their names in the public domain. Now, thanks to the media’s vast appetite for copy about Mrs. Clinton that perk has disappeared.

“There’s this insatiable need for stories about Hillary,” said one Congressional staffer. “The Capitol Hill reporters who cover New York used to call me up and ask, ‘What do you hear?’ Now it’s, ‘What do you hear about Hillary?’ It’s depressing–it shouldn’t be that the only way for us to get any coverage is to gossip about her.”

“The reality is that if any of us come up with an idea, and she does something a fraction as good, she’ll be on page 1 and 3 and we’ll be trying to get people to read about it in a newsletter,” said Mr. King during a chat in his Congressional office. He lunged for the copy of the Daily News sitting on his desk. “Look at this,” he said, opening it to a full-page spread on Mrs. Clinton’s activities the previous evening. Gesturing to the coverage, he said: “Because she had a fund-raiser for [Democratic Senator] Maria Cantwell. Great picture, but I mean, Jesus …. ”

Mrs. Clinton’s presence has affected the lives of her House colleagues in other unexpected ways. Mr. Engel recalled his own run-in with the Hillary Effect. “Gary Ackerman has this fund-raiser where he brings a whole bunch of kosher deli food from Queens,” Mr. Engel said. “Everybody loves this event, because you can’t get good kosher deli down here [in Washington]. So I was at this fund-raiser, and I tried to make my way over to the food, and I suddenly found it very difficult to move. I was just sort of stuck there, wondering what was going on. Then I noticed Hillary by the food table, talking to one of my colleagues, surrounded by this crowd of people looking, gawking, gaping. Even the guys cutting the meat stopped working to go talk to her. I couldn’t get near the sandwiches.”

(Mr. Ackerman, too, remembered the incident: “All these otherwise sophisticated people who paid a thousand bucks for a pastrami on rye would rather get a picture with Hillary,” he said.)

Of course, House members who are trying to fend off the elimination of their seats because of redistricting have bigger things to worry about than a perceived lack of clout or an undetectable media presence. “Forget bringing home the bacon,” said Mr. Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee. “If you ain’t got no district, it don’t make a difference if you bring home the whole goddamn pig.”

Hence the odd spectacle on a recent Wednesday of virtually all of New York’s Democratic Representatives gathered in a room in the Rayburn Office Building just opposite the U.S. Capitol to wait on, of all people, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Mr. Silver, along with State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and Governor George Pataki, will play a key role in the redrawing of the state’s Congressional districts. Mr. Silver was running late, and for more than an hour 18 United States Representatives waited for an Assemblyman from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, not daring to leave the room as travel bulletins came in periodically from Mr. Silver’s chief of staff, Judy Rapvogel: “He’s in Baltimore … he’s getting into a rental car … now he’s stuck outside of D.C. … he’s in a cab on the way over … Mr. Silver is in the building.” When the Speaker finally arrived, he came straight to the point: “Nothing you’ve read in the newspapers is true,” he said, according to several attendees. “I haven’t even looked at a [redistricting] map yet. There hasn’t been any decision on this.”

The preoccupation with redistricting not only has a disruptive effect on schedules, but is also likely to poison any effort to pool resources at a time when delegation unity is most needed. “It’s a tough situation,” said Mr. King. “There are 31 of us sitting around a table knowing that two of us are going to get killed. It makes people more isolationist, each member retreating into their district, focusing more on survival than statesmanship. It becomes all about firming up the base and getting 51 percent of whatever the new district is.”

On April 30, a living symbol of New York’s political past, former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, made his first appearance on Capitol Hill since his graceful exit from office last year. At a Center for National Policy forum, he delivered a sweeping speech entitled “A Thrift Savings Component for Social Security” that touched, in turns, on the installation of the old I.R.T. in Manhattan, World War II, the fall of the Soviet empire and former New York Governor Al Smith’s revolutionary labor-protection legislation. His point was that the United States had gotten through some of its most trying times through ambitious governmental action. “Our response to the end of the Cold War,” he noted, by way of contrast, “has been particularly muted.”

It was vintage Moynihan, the intellectual from Hell’s Kitchen lamenting the lack of courage and vision of the rest of the country, denouncing conservative government-bashing and liberal parochialism in equal measure as destructive to visionary leadership at the federal level.

Far from plotting any great leaps forward, however, New York’s House members will have to capitalize on the muscle they do have at the moment–upstate Republican Congressmen John Sweeney and Thomas Reynolds reportedly enjoy good relations with the White House, Mr. Rangel stands to inherit the most powerful chairmanship in the House should the Democrats gain a majority in 2002, and Westchester Representative Nita Lowey chairs the influential Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In addition, five New Yorkers sit on the House Appropriations Committee.

In recent days, Mr. Engel helped get a Manhattan courthouse renamed for late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Ms. Maloney got the Central Intelligence Agency to release some secret files on Adolf Hitler, and the White House has just agreed to help Mr. King pass legislation that will make it easier for legal immigrants to obtain visas. Not exactly the earth-shaking reforms envisioned by Mr. Moynihan, perhaps, but certainly things that could be regarded as breakthroughs under the current circumstances.

“There’s not going to be any sweeping New Deal legislation from the New York delegation anytime soon,” said Mr. King. “Right now, everyone’s trying to do more little things, while having less power to do them. Other than that, everything’s great.” Our Congress Gang Defeated, Depressed in Bush-Run Capital