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Recent Turnover Is Working Itself Out

December 17, 2010
tags: James Eastland, John Stennis, Pat Harrison, Roger Wicker, Thad Cochran, Theodore Bilbo, Trent Lott
by Brett

One of the themes following the November 2 elections- and even going back to the retirement of Senator Trent Lott- has been the loss of prestige and power among the Mississippi delegation.

On the House side, Bennie Thompson is giving up his chairmanship of the Homeland Security Committee by virtue of Democrats losing the majority. And Gene Taylor’s loss took away 20 years of seniority the Congressman had built up. And on the Senate side, Republicans came short in their long-shot effort to reclaim a majority which means Sen. Thad Cochran will remain the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee (rather than chairman). But Cochran’s ability to deliver money- in the majority or minority- is without question although the restraints the next Congress puts on spending is certainly a question.

This loss of power- or perceived loss of power- has been written about by many in the media. In a column from last summer, Bill Minor proclaimed, “Gone are the days when Mississippi’s delegation in Congress, primarily through seniority, had more clout and influence on Capitol Hill than states of much larger population.”

In a column shortly before the midterms, Bill Crawford stated, “In the old days we elected and re-elected John Stennis, Jim Eastland, Jamie Whitten, Bill Colmer, Arthur Winstead, John Bell Williams, Tom Abernethy, and Sonny Montgomery until their seniority lifted them to positions of power. They became Mississippi’s treasures of influence in Washington. The conventional wisdom was that only by acquiring seniority could a small state like Mississippi have influence and get its share of federal goodies. So, we took pride in ‘voting for the man,’ not the party.”

If there is one thing you’ll notice with Mississippi’s power, generally with Senators, it is that two men have usually served parallel to each other; meaning they come in around the same time and left around the same time.

In the Depression era, Pat Harrison (1919-1941) and Theodore Bilbo (1935-1947) served together. Harrison rose to be chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and even President pro tempore of the Senate. When Harrison passed away, did the media proclaim Mississippi’s power in Congress was over with a 36 year old James Eastland replacing him? John Stennis would join Eastland in 1947.

Eastland, the longtime chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee was currently serving as pro temp when he decided not run for re-election in 1978. A young Congressman named Thad Cochran would replace him. Ten years later, another young Congressman named Trent Lott would replace John Stennis who had served as chairman of the Armed Services Committee and was pro temp when he retired. How could Cochran and Lott ever replace Eastland and Stennis?

Lott, who served as Leader of the Senate for a few years, resigned in 2007 to be replaced by the younger Roger Wicker. Wicker obviously isn’t as powerful as Lott was at one time, and time will tell which path Wicker takes. Cochran is still around although most believe he will hang up his hat when his term ends in 2014. Another younger man or woman will likely join Wicker and the Senatorial delegation will once again work up power and seniority, as they have before.

Turnover happens and you simply have to live with and wait for the cycles to work themselves out. I suppose this is the downside of having Senators generally be close to each other in age, because when you enter around the same time you also leave around the same time.

Also things are looking bright for the three Republican House members. Freshman Alan Nunnelee and Steven Palazzo have been awarded with seats they wanted on Appropriations and Armed Services, respectively. And Sophomore Gregg Harper will sit on the Energy and Commerce Committee beginning next year. Fifteen or 20 years from now all three of those men may be chairmen and we will be discussing how powerful this small delegation is, or one or two may be in the Senate or out of politics altogether. But Mississippi’s delegation is just at the start of a cycle, with power to be earned over the years.

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