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Vice President Joe Biden, right, conducts the swearing in of Vermont Democrat Sen. Patrick Leahy as president pro tempore of the Senate as his wife, Marcelle Leahy, looks on, in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.
With the death of 88-year-old Sen. Daniel Inouye on Monday, Patrick Leahy ascended to the top of a powerful Senate hierarchy.
As the body’s new senior member, Vermont’s seven-term Democrat was sworn in Tuesday by Vice President Joe Biden as pro tem, a post that puts him third in line for the U.S. presidency. But experts say that title is more symbol than substance and that Leahy’s real power will derive from his likely position as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“It’s a uniquely powerful position, because of the direct hand that committee has in spending decisions, and therefore the degree to which its chair has over precisely how that money is going to be spent,” said David Rohde, professor of political science at Duke University.
Aides said Leahy was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but the Capitol Hill news outlet Roll Call was reporting Tuesday evening that Leahy would indeed be taking over the appropriations chairmanship held by Inouye.
“If you want inside power and want to make friends, this is the single best committee for it, because it’s large, and you’re doling out federal dollars to your fellow senators,” said Garrison Nelson, professor of political science at the University of Vermont. “So it is a very major inside power position.”
The extent to which Leahy will be able to leverage his new position on Vermont’s behalf is unclear.
Vermont Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, who has said that federal retrenchment could by early next year exacerbate a $70 million shortfall in the state budget, said he isn’t expecting Leahy to be a miracle worker.
“I think we need to realize that as much as it’s great to have the chairman of appropriations be from your state, we should not be placing extra pressure on him or his staff just because of that,” Campbell, a Windsor County Democrat, said Tuesday. “Hopefully there are perks that will filter down to us. But he’s got to represent not only the state of Vermont but also the rest of the country.”
The abolition of earmarks means Leahy won’t have at his disposal the same fiscal mechanism used by his predecessors — the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens and his “Bridge to Nowhere” being perhaps the most infamous example — to bring home the bacon.
But Eric Davis, professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said Leahy will have sway over the formulas used to determine individual states’ shares of appropriations, which could bolster Vermont’s federal health care and transportation revenues.
“As chairman of that committee, he can make sure the formulas are written in a way that Vermont gets the most money it possibly can for programs,” Davis said.
Rohde said he’s unaware of any studies proving a causal link between the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the fiscal fortunes of the state whose senator occupies the post. “But the lore and the individual anecdotes bear it out,” Rohde said.
Rohde said the impact is “on the margins.”
“Sen. Leahy isn’t going to be able to decide, OK, from now on 50 percent of the federal budget will now be spent in Vermont,” Rohde said. “But there are, over time, always stories about how when their senator is chairman, their state makes out better than other states.”
Whatever the benefits that accrue to this state, they may be long-lasting. At 72, Nelson said, Leahy comes to the post at a relatively youthful age. Inouye didn’t achieve senior-most status, or the chairmanship that came with it, until he was 84. His predecessor, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, relinquished the post when he was 91.
Leahy, up for re-election in 2016, said last month he intends to run for another six-year term.
“He was 34 when he was first elected,” Davis said. “And that’s one of the advantages of getting started in the Senate so young.”
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