The change in congressional power this week is more than an ideological shift. It ushers in a revival in the political influence of the nation’s heartland, as well as the South.
This contrasts dramatically with the last Congress. Virtually its entire leadership — from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on down — represented either the urban core or affluent, close-in suburbs of large metropolitan areas. Powerful old lions like Reps. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) of Harlem, Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) of Los Angeles and Barney Frank (D-Mass.) of Newton, an affluent, close-in Boston suburb, roamed. The Senate was led by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who loyally services Las Vegas casino interests while his lieutenant, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), is now the top Democratic satrap of Wall Street.
The old Senate tandem remains in place — but with greatly reduced influence. Many remaining Democrats, particularly those from the heartland, now live in justifiable fear for their political lives. But the most radical shifts in political geography are in the House.
The new House leaders are, for the most part, from small towns, suburbs and interior cities. Most GOP pickups came from precisely these regions — particularly in the South and Midwest.
The new speaker, Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), for example, represents a southern Ohio district that includes some Cincinnati suburbs. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the majority leader, comes from suburbs west of Richmond. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), chairman of the Budget Committee, hails from Janesville (population: 63,000).
Power is moving within state delegations. Before the elections, California’s most influential House members hailed from coastal districts. In contrast, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the new majority whip, represents Bakersfield, an oil-rich, largely agricultural area known as “Little Texas” — a far cry from the urbanity of Pelosi’s San Francisco.
This change in geography also suggests a shift in the economic balance of power. The old Congress owed its allegiance largely to the “social-industrial” complex around Washington, Wall Street, public-sector unions, large universities and the emergent, highly subsidized alternative-energy industry. In contrast, the new House leaders largely represent districts tied to more traditional energy development, manufacturing and agriculture.
The urban-centered environmental movement’s much-hyped talk of “green jobs,” so popular in Obama-dominated Washington, is now likely to be supplanted by a concern with the more than 700,000 jobs directly related to fossil fuel production. Greater emphasis may be placed on ensuring that electric power rates are low enough to keep U.S. industry competitive.
The Obama administration’s land-use policies will also be forced to shift. Sums lavished on “smart growth” grants to regions, high-speed rail and new light-rail transit are likely to face tough obstacles in this Congress.
Ken Orski, a former senior Transportation Department official and longtime observer of Washington land-use and transportation policy, said that no member of the GOP majority on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee comes from a big-city, transit-oriented district. The new committee, dominated by members from rural, suburban and interior smaller cities, represents areas that rely little on mass transit. These members are expected to steer money back to the roads and bridges their constituents rely on.
Even more important are pending changes in energy policy. Many conservatives disdain what they consider “green pork” — subsidies for renewable fuels like solar and wind as well as the electric car and battery industry. Many firms involved in renewable fuels, already struggling to compete with cheap natural gas, could be driven out of business without continued federal nurturing.
Another top priority for GOP leaders — and perhaps some energy-state Democrats — may be to choke off funding for the Environmental Protection Agency’s announced new regulations for greenhouse gases. Three out of four jobs in the oil and gas extraction industry are in GOP-dominated Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. California’s still-large oil industry includes many who work in the state’s increasingly Republican-leaning interior.
Similarly, more than two-thirds of the nation’s coal mines, a prime EPA target, are in just three, increasingly red-leaning states — Kentucky, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, according to the Energy Information Administration.
Yet urban areas can expect some benefits from this Congress. The recent extension of the Bush tax cuts largely benefits wealthy professionals, who cluster in a handful of expensive, liberal-oriented cities and their leafy, affluent suburbs. San Francisco, Boston and Manhattan liberals may groan about “breaks” for the rich, but many may be cursing the GOP all the way to the bank.
Over time, the new emphasis on fiscal austerity could also play to Wall Street’s advantage — probably the last intention of most tea party activists. Reductions in public borrowing should drive more money into the private economy. This approach, adopted by Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, has helped create a smart recovery for London — even as the rest of Britain suffers from government cutbacks.
The drive for austerity could also threaten traditional heartland staples like agricultural price supports and military spending. Major defense budget reductions, a necessity for any credible cut, could prove painful for military-oriented, red states like Virginia, Arizona, Alabama and Texas.
This new regional balance of power poses a profound existential question for Democrats in states like California, New York and Illinois. The unlikely possibility of any future bailout for states or cities should help concentrate their minds on things like cutting spending and restoring their ability to create new jobs.
Overall, it may be better for all regions to have a divided government. With President Barack Obama still in charge of the executive branch, we are not likely to see a repeat of the Bush-era excesses that favored traditional energy companies, suburban housing speculation and agribusiness.
Optimistically, we may now see a canceling out of both parties’ regional tilts, spurring greater competition among localities for both investment and human talent. This could ultimately benefit the entire economy — taxpayers and communities — shedding an enlightened pragmatism on the current dreary landscape that is U.S. politics.
This article first appeared at Politico.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University, and an adjunct fellow of the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.