Fall of Cunningham could hurt county in Congress North County Times - North San Diego and Southwest Riverside County News


While many people cheered Randy "Duke" Cunningham's exit from Congress late last month, the loss of a powerful senior congressional representative could mean that San Diego County ends up getting a smaller piece of the budget pie in the coming years, congressional watchdogs say.

Cunningham, who resigned in November after pleading guilty to taking more then $2.4 million in bribes, served eight consecutive terms and sat on two congressional committees and two subcommittees --- making him a powerful player in the fight for federal funds.

Here's how it works: Congressional committees award lucrative government contracts and funding for public-improvement projects. In the hardball world of congressional politics, each member fights to secure funding for projects in his or her district ----- projects that translate to more jobs for the local economy and a greater quality of life for residents.

A spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics said Friday that senior members, such as Cunningham, who sit on powerful committees play a vital role in bringing more jobs and tax revenues home to their districts.

"It hurts the district to lose a member like him with seniority and positions on committees like that, (which) can bring a lot of pork back to the district," said Larry Noble, executive director for the center. The nonprofit organization touts itself as being a nonpartisan research group that studies money in politics.

'The consummate deal-maker'
Cunningham "was very good at getting money for his region," said Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for Taxpayers for Common Sense, another Washington watchdog group that tracks the federal budget each year. "He was the consummate deal-maker who knew how to leverage his political influence to take care of (his district)."

For example, in November, Cunningham's office put out a press release that touted the tens of millions of dollars for transportation and construction projects he was able to bring to San Diego County this year through his position as a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

According to the statement, funding for those projects included: $12.2 million for the Oceanside-Escondido Sprinter Project; $1 million for increasing the number of lanes on Interstate 15; $600,000 for the Sorrento Valley Road and Genessee Avenue Interchange; $500,000 for the Solana Beach Intermodal Facility; $400,000 for the widening of northbound lanes on Highway 56 and Interstate 5; $250,000 for the city of Encinitas' San Elijo Lagoon Visitors Center and more than $230 million to build a new federal courthouse in San Diego.

Add-ons add up
Each year, the president sends his budget to Congress. Then, members of the House and Senate meet in committees, add projects for their districts to the budget, and request funding to pay for them. Those add-ons, known at the Capitol as earmarks, have increased dramatically in number and cost over the past decade.

Ashdown said Friday that the number of projects added onto the budget for individual Congress members' districts has quadrupled since 1994 ---- to 15,500 in the 2004-05 budget year. The cost of those projects, meanwhile, has tripled in the same period, to $32.6 billion.

The House Appropriations Committee on which Cunningham sat is one of the most important committees in Washington when it comes to controlling federal purse strings, Ashdown said.

San Diego County still has U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, which could help the San Diego region get more defense contracts.

However, that committee doesn't control the federal budget the way the Appropriations Committee does, so it's hard to say how much Hunter will be able to make up for the loss of Cunningham, Ashdown added.

The big question is whether U.S. Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who is the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, will pick up the slack for San Diego County and continue to steer projects and funding to this region, Ashdown said.

It all comes down to "whether Jerry Lewis is going to haul San Diego water, now that Cunningham is going to the clink," Ashdown said.

Public works dollars at stake
The Center for Responsive Politics' Noble said he doesn't expect that local defense contractors will be significantly affected by the loss of Cunningham. The defense industry tends to extend their lobbying largesse beyond their local congressional representatives, he said.

"Defense contractors will obviously court their local congressman, but they will also court powerful members across the nation through campaign contributions and lobbying and providing other perks," Noble said.

He added that the loss of Cunningham will tend to have a greater effect on public infrastructure projects.

"There are some things you really have to rely on your local congressman to get you, like roads and local infrastructure building," Noble said. "Those are the areas that will lose some influence."

The loss of Cunningham is just part of the cyclical nature of power in the nation's capital, Ashdown said.

"It's inevitable ---- all regions lose senior members, but they also rebound, because new people get into positions of power," Ashdown said.

Typically, the longer Congress members are in office, the more power they gain as they are appointed to powerful committees. Cunningham was in Congress for a decade and a half.

Within the next few days, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to announce a special election to pick a replacement for Cunningham to serve out the remainder of his term though the end of 2006. A regularly scheduled primary election will be held in June and a general election in November, and the winner of that election will then serve in Congress for the following two years.

So far, a single Democrat and more than a half-dozen Republicans have announced they will run in the June primaries and/or the special election.

Noble said that a number of factors can lessen or lengthen the amount of time it takes for a freshman member to move up the food chain of Washington power.

"Some new members (move up) quickly ----- others take longer," Noble said. "It depends on how well that person gets along in the party, who the ruling party is, how good a fundraiser you are. Some members have very strong contacts, others are seen as outsiders."


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