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Langevin’s Influence Jeopardized in Minority

Friday, April 29, 2011

 

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- He is sometimes lost in the shadows of Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation, but U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin had quietly begun to deliver for the Ocean State on Capitol Hill.

He recently used a subcommittee chairmanship to help steer a $5-billion submarine contract to Electric Boat last year, was a pro-life voice for the state’s Catholic community during the national health care debate, and brought new prominence to Rhode Island as one of the country’s leading authorities on cyber security, all while blazing new trails for the nation’s disabled community.

But Langevin’s modest rise in Washington’s complicated power structure has been turned upside down. When Democrats lost their majority in the House of Representatives, Rhode Island’s senior Congressman lost his committee chairmanship, his ability to pass legislation on his own, and any political leverage he may have had on pro-life issues.

And while he remains optimistic, the six-term Representative’s new position in the minority, as well as Republican pledges to end earmarks, means that the steady flow of federal dollars to the Ocean State is in jeopardy to say the least.

Political opponents have noticed the shift.

“Overall it’s going to be a very difficult year to get anything done, unless you’re a well-established member of the Republican majority,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a Republican who has flirted with the idea of challenging Langevin in the past, but has no plans to in 2012. “If there are no earmarks at all, you’ve got fire departments, police departments, hospitals, all these groups that for years have relied on that kind of money ... [Langevin] needs to show people that he’s doing something in the district. If there’s no money coming in, I think it’s problematic for everyone.”

GOP views as ineffective

Rhode Island Republicans have long painted Langevin as ineffective and largely irrelevant in Congress.

His 2nd Congressional District opponent over the last two cycles, Mark Zaccaria, often mentioned the Congressional power rankings compiled in 2006 and 2008 by the Capitol Hill publication Roll Call, which deemed Langevin less powerful than all but a handful of House Democrats.

In recent years, however, he quietly became a prominent voice on national security, an industry of particular relevance for Rhode Island’s economy. Langevin held two key subcommittee gavels in since 2007, first as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Emerging Threats, Cybersecurity, and Science and Technology. And in 2009, he began leading the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

It was from that position he says he helped funnel $5.1 billion to Electric Boat to build two Virginia-class submarines this year.

“2011 is the first year that Rhode Island will build two subs,” Langevin said, noting that he worked with the rest of the state’s Congressional delegation on the initiative, which was included in this year’s National Defense Authorization bill. “I’ve definitely taken a lead role in that.”

He also helped push an initiative to create a national office for cyber security, a measure that was approved by the Democratic-led House, but died in the Senate last year. And Langevin largely takes the credit for bringing a $200,000 respite grant to Rhode Island this year to help families who care for disabled relatives at home.

But he lost the chairmanship when the new Congress convened in January. He was relegated to the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities.

The new assignment, he says, gives him a prominent minority voice on the panel that oversees high-tech research and development for the Department of Defense. But in the shift, he lost one of the two subcommittee staffers previously under his control. And he technically lost the ability to lead.

“We don’t set the agenda like we did when we were in the majority,” Langevin told GoLocalProv, noting that he now needs Republican support to help enact his priorities. “But in the way I operate, I have always placed a priority on bipartisanship. So I don’t have to go looking for friends in hoping to get a majority supporter in my efforts. I would hope that they remember that I worked in a bipartisan way.”

Future Electric Boat submarine contracts are near the top of his priority list going forward. His position as the top Democrat on the Armed Services subcommittee should help ensure the request isn’t completely lost in the House.

“We’re looking at that right now, but [future funding levels] will be sufficient to continue building two subs going forward,” he said, adding that the notion earmarks will disappear in the new Congress “isn’t entirely accurate.”

“They’re actually developing a process by which we will have a role in directing funding to our district – advocate for priorities that we have back in Rhode Island,” Langevin continued. “They’re finalizing that process — the Republicans are working through their own process. We will be able to advocate for priorities for the district, bring funding back home.”

Political future

While there are rumors virtually every election cycle that health concerns will end Langevin’s political career, he says retirement will have to wait.

“I am going to run for re-election in 2012,” said the 47-year-old Congressman, the only quadriplegic serving in Congress.

Newly installed state GOP Chairman Ken McKay says Langevin will be in trouble in 2012.

“If he doesn’t think he’s vulnerable, he’s crazy,” McKay said, acknowledging that the state GOP has consistently struggled to recruit and support viable candidates. “I am like a dog on a bone. We are not going to give them one inch.”

But Avedisian thinks Langevin is on relatively solid footing.

“He’s visible in Rhode Island -- goes to a lot of events. I think as long as he’s got something, whether its cyber terrorism or something else, that makes him excited about what he’s doing, even with a tacit connection to Rhode Island, I think it serves him well,” he said.

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Steve Peoples is a former Providence Journal political reporter who covers national politics for Roll Call. As the GoLocalProv Washington Correspondent, he will provide periodic coverage of Rhode Island affairs from Washington, D.C.
 

 

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