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How effective is any one single member of Congress?


CANTON — As candidates for New York’s 21st Congressional District slug it out over the next few months, arraying themselves along the political spectrum and offering to make meaningful change in Washington, a basic question remains: just how effective is a junior member of Congress?

According to two people who have been there, the answer is: not very effective at all, at first.

Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, and former Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert, R-New Hartford, reflected on their first terms in Congress and seemed to find some common ground, despite belonging to different political parties.

“Every aspiring Congressman has visions of grandeur, definitely thoughts about what they’d like to accomplish,” Rep. Boehlert said.

Rep. Boehlert illustrated his point with an anecdote about a briefing for freshmen representatives at the White House.

A newly elected Congressman stood up and declared, “Here’s what we need to do about Social Security,” before outlining his plan, Rep. Boehlert said.

A second Congresman stood up and said emphatically, “Here’s what we need to do about our foreign policy,” and outlined his plan, Rep. Boehlert said.

And then it was Rep. Boehlert’s turn.

“Now that we’ve handled the small problems, let’s deal with the big ones,” Rep. Boehlert said. “Who do you call to get a tour for your constituents? Who do you call for a picture?”

That tale, with all its down-home charm, gets at a larger point, according to Rep. Boehlert: an emphasis on listening to constituents and focusing on representing the district.

For Rep. Boehlert, that representation is best illustrated by his attempts to solve the acid rain problem destroying Adirondack wilderness in the 1980s.

He found an ally on the other side of the aisle, California Congressman Henry Waxman, D-California.

The result of that collaboration was the Bates-Boehlert-Waxman amendment to the Clean Air Act of 1990 that brought about changes Rep. Boehlert had been seeking since he was first elected to Congress in 1983.

“I was an instant success, it only took me seven years,” Rep. Boehlert recalled.

However, at the time, it was “fairly common to work with people on ‘the other side of the aisle,’” Mr. Boehlert said.

That kind of thing is not so easy anymore, he said.

The experience was much the same for Rep. Owens, who was first elected to office in 2009 and announced this year that he would not seek re-election, even after surviving two challenges from current Republican candidate Matthew A. Doheny.

Rep. Owens said there are at least four facets to measuring how effective a candidate will be once in office: one, if he or she indicates how often the person will vote with their party; two, if he or she can lay the groundwork for passing legislation two or three years down the road; three, how quickly he or she can get an office operation up and running; and four, how effectively they relate issues of national concern to a local level.

“It does take some discipline not to fall in line and not just vote the party line,” Rep. Owens said.

It is Rep. Owens’s contention, and that of Rep. Boehlert, that in order to represent a congressional district in upstate New York, where political views tend to be more moderate, you must break with your party on occasion.

But that can complicate the traditional avenues of acquiring power and influence in the capital, where ingratiating yourself with more senior members is a way to secure committee assignments and enact legislation.

According to Christopher J. Galdieri, assistant professor in the Department of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., House members acquire influence through seniority and issue expertise.

“As a result, new members of the House generally tend to have very little influence over policy,” Mr. Galdieri said.

The current partisan gridlock to which Rep. Boehlert alluded complicates that traditonal view.

“Beyond that, we’re in an era of strong partisan control of Congress,” Mr. Galdieri said. “If the Republicans hold the House after the 2014 elections, as many observers expect them to, no Democrat — no matter how senior or how much expertise he or she has — is going to be terribly influential, and vice versa.”

But that doesn’t mean candidates should lose hope. “Sometimes a junior member can be an effective legislator,” Mr. Galdieri said.

As an example, he cites Patrick Murphy, D-PA, who was elected in 2006 and was a leader of the successful effort to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” But Rep. Murphy, as the first Iraq war veteran elected to Congress, entered office with some expertise in military affairs, and the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell law was already a priority for his party, Mr. Galdieri said.

The traditional means by which representatives acquire influence may be under attack, according to Victoria Farrar-Myers, a congressional expert at the University of Texas at Arlington.

“Unlike past Congresses that were controlled by strict seniority, today’s Congress provides an open field for newly elected members to make an impact by gaining positions on desirable committees, using their voting power to wield necessary bargains to aid in retaining their seats or by effecting policy through casting — or not — the vote necessary in a sharply hyperpartisan congressional environment,” Ms. Farrar-Myers said in an email.

Of all the 21st Congressional District candidates, only Steven W. Burke, who is running as a Democrat, has held elected office before. He is a Macomb town councilman.

The Republican candidates — Joseph M. Gilbert, Elise M. Stefanik and Matthew A. Doheny — have never been elected to any office before, and neither have Aaron G. Woolf, the other Democratic candidate, or Matthew J. Funiciello or Donald Hassig, the Green Party candidates.

Whether that relative inexperience will be a detriment or an asset will likely depend on the path the winner takes once he or she gets to Washington.

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