Ten of the city’s members of Congress are asking their constituents to send them back to Washington, and they are likely to get their wish.
The nine Democrats seeking re-election each won their 2010 congressional bids by claiming 70 percent or more of the vote, and even Charles Rangel, the 21-term veteran who faced a tough primary in June, is a shoo-in for the general election.
Meanwhile, GOP freshman Rep. Michael Grimm’s race against Democratic challenger Mark Murphy is more competitive than other Houses contests in the city; but Grimm has far outraised his opponent, and a Siena poll released last week gave him a 18-point lead over Murphy.
While a seat in New York City’s congressional delegation may remain one of the safest jobs around, it’s also a role that has changed significantly in the last two years. The Democrats are back in the minority, unable to advance or alter legislation. And starting in the session that began in 2011, all members of Congress have lost a powerful tool: earmarks for millions of dollars in funds they once steered to their district.
Grimm, while a member of the majority party in the House, is in his first term, which means he lacks seniority that could give him sway among hundreds of fellow members.
Races elsewhere in New York State could help decide who controls Congress in the next session, and if Democrats retake command it would reboot New York City’s power in Washington. But in the meantime, how is a voter supposed to weigh options at the polls?
New York City’s congressional delegation may have lost its most potent powers, but members still have a few ways of making their influence felt, in the city and in Washington. Here’s how members running for reelection have wielded them in the last two years and—though they’re not running against one another—which members have distinguished themselves in each category.
Show me the money
WINNERS — Reps. Crowley, Maloney, and Velazquez
LOSERS — Reps. Meeks and Clarke
The Democrats may be the minority party in the House this term, but Democratic members of New York’s delegation are working hard to change that. “The first thing that matters to a minority party is to not be a minority anymore,” said Matthew Green, an associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America who has studied the role of minority parties in the House. “A trend among party leaders in the minority is trying to get everyone in the party to participate in that process of helping the party win a majority in the next election.”
The city’s nine incumbent Democrats who are seeking re-election have raised just over $1 million for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which has received almost $130 million in contributions this election cycle. Some, like Reps. Gregory Meeks and Yvette Clarke, did not contribute to the DCCC. (Clarke told The New York World that she intends to make a donation to the committee this election cycle.) But most of the city’s Democratic representatives have already donated, and the bulk of the money came from Reps. Joseph Crowley, Nydia Velazquez and Carolyn Maloney, each of whom contributed more than $200,000. The seniority of New York City Democrats makes them important fundraisers for the committee; the DCCC can then use the funds to help candidates nationally.
New York’s incumbent Democratic candidates are also donating directly to other House races. For example, Crowley has contributed more than $170,000 to candidates running in at least 30 states. The delegation’s Democrats have also contributed to candidates within New York State who are running in much tighter races, including Tim Bishop, Kathy Hochul, Louise Slaughter and Bill Owens — Democratic incumbents facing fierce opposition. Each received a total of $8,000 or more from the city’s incumbent candidates, and in some cases additional money from their leadership political action committees, or PACs. Murphy also received about $14,500 from the city’s incumbent Democratic candidates and their PACs. But this has done little to close the gap between Murphy, who has raised almost $700,000, and Grimm, who has pulled in just over $2 million.
The Bully Pulpit
WINNERS — Reps. Maloney, Crowley, and Clarke
The minority party has two jobs: to raise money and raise hell. The city’s Democrats have found a few opportunities to do the latter this term.
In February, Maloney helped fuel a political controversy about contraception during a hearing on a federal requirement that all employers cover the cost of birth control, when she asked a panel of male religious leaders, “Where are the women?”
Democrats had wanted female Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke to testify at the hearing, a request that House Republicans denied. The ensuing controversy helped keep the issue of contraception in the media for weeks, giving Maloney an opportunity to speak about the issue repeatedly.
Maloney is not the only member of the city’s delegation with the ability to command the media’s attention. Last year, Crowley gave a “silent speech” on the house floor to protest what he saw as the GOP’s failure to pass a jobs bill. The congressman pulled sheets of paper off an easel claiming that the GOP’s failure to prioritize jobs left him “speechless.” Politico likened the performance to Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues film.
Congressmen may spend a lot of time in Washington, but that does not keep them from making their voices heard on local issues. Yvette Clarke, whose Brooklyn district includes parts of Crown Heights, Brownsville, Flatbush and Park Slope, has repeatedly criticized the city’s stop-and-frisk policing practices. In July, she wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, asking the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in two court cases and to investigate the NYPD’s policing, a request that is now under review at the agency. The letter was also signed by other members of Congress, including New York City’s Maloney, Velazquez, Rep. Charles Rangel and Rep. Jose Serrano.
Not all members of the delegation hold Clarke’s views on stop-and-frisk. Also in August, Grimm released an op-ed in The Staten Island Advance, stating that a recent revision of the stop-and-frisk policy endangered the public and police officers.
Bringing Home the Bacon
Winners – Rep. Maloney
Losers – Everyone else
In the previous session of Congress, between 2008 and 2010, members of the city’s delegation sponsored tens of millions of dollars in earmarks — funds they could direct to projects of their choice. Some of that money went to organizations in New York City, including youth development projects in the Bronx, cultural groups in Brooklyn and research at universities.
But with the House’s moratorium on this type of discretionary spending, lawmakers have lost an important tool for funneling money to their districts. Members of Congress can still make use of “phonemarks” and “lettermarks”: direct requests to federal agencies for money for particular projects. But it is difficult to tell when lawmakers use these methods to secure funding. According to Steve Ellis from the federal spending watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, evidence of lettermarks can sometimes be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, but phonemarks “are virtually untrackable.”
The earmarks moratorium may be aimed at curbing government waste, but it has limited representatives’ ability to respond directly to requests from groups in their districts. In the Bronx, the Mary Mitchell Center, an organization that provides after-school and youth programs that received funding earmarked by Rep. Jose Serrano, had to cut back its services after the moratorium. According to executive director Heidi Hynes, it is difficult for an organization with a small budget and local scope to apply directly to federal agencies for funding.
“When you’re writing a federal grant it’s ridiculously onerous,” said Hynes. “We have done it, but it takes two weeks of someone’s time.”
Similarly, Adam Friedman, executive director of the Pratt Center for Community Development, said that earmarks provide a degree of flexibility in a rigid federal funding system. “You just ask for a meeting and you present a program,” said Friedman of the process of obtaining an earmark. “It allows new initiatives. It allows you to experiment.” Friedman says after the moratorium he had to cut a successful energy efficiency program that had been supported by funding earmarked by Rep. Jerrold Nadler.
Earmarks and their ilk are not the only way that member of congress can help secure funding for city projects. Maloney counts among her achievements advocating for federal assistance for the city’s Second Avenue Subway. She has been a leading champion for federal funding for the project since the 1990s, and last year, when a budget cut rescinded money to the Federal Transit Administration, she wrote a letter to the agency’s administrator requesting that the Second Avenue Subway be excluded from the list of projects destined for the agency’s chopping block. She succeeded.
Members can also reward particular companies with tax breaks, through tariff-relief bills that waive import duties. Maloney sponsored several such bills, at least one of them for Ann Taylor stores. None have yet been signed into law.
Legislation and Leadership
WINNERS – Reps. Grimm and Meeks
LOSERS – The minority party
Being in the minority means that much of the legislation sponsored by the city’s Democrats will just become bills stuck on Capitol Hill. So instead of sweeping reform, many members of the delegation count defensive victories and symbolic acts among their legislative achievements this term.
In a New York World/City Limits survey sent to all members of the city’s congressional delegation, Maloney said that the past term has been “more about defense than offense,” and chalks up as her top achievements fending off attacks on Dodd-Frank financial reforms — including the he Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — and Maloney’s own Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights. Similarly, Nadler cited his efforts to defend federal funding for mass transit.
Crowley reported that one of his top three accomplishments this term was the passage of a bill that renamed a post office in his district to honor a soldier who was killed in Iraq.
Two of the city’s other representatives listed among their top three accomplishments this term bills that have not been signed into law: Rangel cited a bill that would increase tax deductions for interest paid on student loans, while Clarke touted the importance of her cyber security bill, which encourages the dissemination of information to the public about threats to Internet security.
The city’s delegation did win a legislative victory in early January 2011 when President Obama signed the 9/11 health care bill, which some members had spent years working on. Also known as the Zadroga bill, it was passed by the previous session of Congress, came into effect last year, and provided care and compensation for those suffering from long-term health effects after the attacks on the World Trade Center.
When it comes to voting on legislation, Democratic members of the city’s delegation don’t always march in lockstep with their party. Five of the city’s Democrats voted against installing a plaque at the World War II memorial in Washington that included a prayer President Franklin Roosevelt said on D-Day; that measure was opposed by only a couple dozen members of the House. ““I had concerns about the issue of the separation of church and state and felt that this particular bill was blurring the line,” Serrano, one of the dissenters, told The New York World via email.
The delegation’s Democrats were also divided on trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia approved in Congress last year. Most Democrats in the House did not vote for the bills, although Obama supported the legislation. Crowley and Meeks voted in favor of all three deals; Maloney and Rangel voted in favor of the agreements with South Korea and Panama; and Engel voted for the Colombia and Panama agreements. Most Democrats in the House did not vote for the bills, although Obama supported the legislation. (A spokesperson for Rangel explained that the Colombia pact did not adequately address a leading concern for the congressman: “Unfortunately, the key issues with the Colombia FTA — labor rights and violence and impunity — have not been satisfactorily addressed.”)
The delegation’s lone Republican running for re-election has introduced only one bill that was signed into law; it renamed a Staten Island post office after a Vietnam War hero. But a few bills Grimm has sponsored have passed the House, including one that will allow a controversial gas pipeline to go through Gateway National Park Recreational Area. That bill, which was co-sponsored by Meeks, passed the House and the Senate.
Missteps and Mishaps
Winners – Rep. Crowley
Losers – Reps. Grimm and Meeks
The city’s delegation had its share of scandals and flubs this term. In September, during an appearance on the Colbert Report, Clarke insisted that slavery still existed in Brooklyn in 1898. When host Stephen Colbert asked who might be keeping slaves in New York at that time, Clarke claimed that the Dutch were the culprits. The next day her office claimed the congresswoman was only joking. “It’s supposed to be a ha-ha moment,” said her spokesperson.
The missteps of New York City members of Congress have not all been laughing matters. Watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington put two members of the city’s delegation on its 2012 “Most Corrupt” list. Grimm landed on the list for a federal investigation into 2010 campaign funds alleged to have been solicited from foreigners not eligible to contribute for U.S. elections, and in excess of limits on cash contributions. (“Any suggestion that I was involved in any activities that may run afoul of the campaign finance laws is categorically false and belied by my life of public service protecting and enforcing the laws of this country,” Grimm said in a statement.)
Gregory Meeks made the cut because he repeatedly failed to report personal loans on his financial disclosures, and because federal investigators are scrutinizing his connection to several nonprofit groups, including one that collected over a quarter a million dollars for victims of Hurricane Katrina but then only distributed $1,400 to those affected by the storm. (Meeks did not respond to a request for comment.)
Rangel is still clawing his way out of financial stumbles that led to his loss of the House Ways and Means Committee chairmanship in 2010. This term, financial disclosures revealed he banked a bundle by selling his beach house in the Dominican Republic. Rangel was censured in 2010 for, among other things, failing to pay taxes on the rental income from the villa. Congressional records show Rangel purchased the property in the late 1980s for just over $80,000 and reaped between $250,000 and $1 million in 2010 from its sale and rental income.
But while Meeks and Grimm remain under scrutiny and Rangel’s still in the dog house, Crowley is in the clear. In 2010 the House Office of Congressional Ethics opened an investigation into donations from financial institutions to Crowley and other representatives shortly before the House vote on financial reform. Early last year the House Ethics Committee dropped the inquiry after finding that the activities of Crowley and other lawmakers “raised no appearances of impropriety” and did not “violate any law or other applicable standards of conduct.”
This story was produced in partnership with City Limits. Additional reporting by Irina Irinova and Sasha Chavkin.