Once a person is elected to Congress they have a 90 percent chance of reelection. The percentage increases after they have been in office for several terms. Most people in the private sector wish they had that kind of job security.
Most people assume that congressmen are automatically more powerful than legislators. This is not necessarily true. Out of our seven members of Congress only two have significant influence. Spencer Bachus of the Birmingham area 6th District and Robert Aderholt of Haleyville in the 4th District have reached a sphere of importance.
Seniority is the key to power in Washington. It usually takes 20 years or more before you can chair a committee. Even then it depends on what committee you chair. With 435 members of Congress most are relegated to being backbenchers and party pawns. They very seldom stray from the reservation. They adhere to what the party leaders tell them to do and how to vote.
I am reminded of an occurrence in 1985 when our Senior Senator Richard Shelby was planning to run against incumbent Senator Jeremiah Denton. Shelby came to me and asked if I would be his campaign manager in Pike County. I was in the legislature and it is generally not good politics to get involved in other people’s races. However, I liked Shelby a lot and acquiesced to help him.
Shelby was a member of Congress. He had been elected four times to the U.S. Congress from the sprawling old 7th District, which stretched all the way from Tuscaloosa to Mobile along the Mississippi border, so I asked, “Shelby are you sure you want to make this venture? You have a safe House seat and can be reelected for life.” In vintage Shelby pragmatism he looked at me and said, “I’m not asking for your opinion, I’m just asking you to help me. I’m running for the U.S. Senate. I’m one of 435 members of Congress. I’ve been there eight years and nobody even knows my name. It will be 20 years before I’m chairman of a committee.”
A similar scenario took place earlier this year. I was visiting the House chamber and settled into a relaxed conversation with my friend Representative Jay Love of Montgomery. Jay, like Shelby, had been successful in the private sector before entering politics. Jay ran for Congress for the open seat in the 2nd District in 2008. He spent a good bit of his own money. He lost by an eyelash to Bobby Bright.
Even though Bright worked hard for two years, he was vulnerable to a strong Republican challenge in 2010. It is a Republican seat.
A Republican had held it since 1964 and Barack Obama was going to be an albatross to any Democrat in southeast Alabama that year. Jay would have been the obvious candidate to take back the seat for the GOP.
However, he opted to run for reelection to his state House seat.
I asked him if he had any remorse about not going to Congress or wished he had run in 2010. As soon as I asked the question, I looked up at the screen and saw the State Education Budget was on the agenda and saw his name as the sponsor. Jay Love is Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the Education Budget. His power over public policy is immensely greater than if he were commuting to Washington every week as a lowly freshman backbencher from Montgomery. Not only does he have more influence, he has a much better life. He is home with his wife and children every night. He said he was sure he had made the right choice.
As stated, all seven of our members of Congress will be reelected on November 6th. We currently have six Republicans and one Democrat. Spencer Bachus, who is the dean of the delegation, has 20 years under his belt. Robert Aderholt is young and on Appropriations and has a great future. Mike Rogers represents the 3rd District and has 10 years of seniority. Jo Bonner represents the 1st district, which encompasses Mobile and Baldwin Counties, and has been in Congress for 10 years.
We have three freshman members of Congress all three are running for reelection either with no competition or token opponents. Mo Brooks is a Republican from Huntsville. Martha Roby is a freshman Republican from Montgomery and Terri Sewell is a freshman Democrat from Birmingham.
Neither Senator Richard Shelby nor Senator Jeff Sessions is up for reelection this year. Sessions runs in 2014 and Shelby is up in 2016.
Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His column appears weekly in more than 70 Alabama newspapers. Steve served 16 years in the state legislature. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.