By J.T. Rushing, correspondent
WASHINGTON — Flying just below the radar of headlines about the Nov. 6 election is a scenario with far-reaching consequences for Iowans — a political takeover in Congress that could drastically alter the power of the state’s federal lawmakers.
Besides the presidential election, the possibility of Republicans taking over the Senate or Democrats capturing the House would have an enormous impact on the legislation that comes out of Congress to a President Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.
Most importantly would be a change in the Senate, where 32-year Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican, has controlled the top minority position on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee for the past two years. The Senate’s top watchdog and critic of the Obama administration, Grassley would assume the committee’s chairmanship in the event of a GOP takeover.
An equally powerful committee chairmanship is on the line for 28-year Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who has controlled the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee since 2009. A GOP takeover would topple Harkin from that post; continued Democratic control in the Senate would allow him to keep it.
A party change in the Democratic Senate is considered far more possible than in the GOP-controlled House. Republicans need to win only four Senate seats to take over the chamber — three if Romney wins the White House — and Democrats are at a disadvantage because they are forced to defend 23 seats while Republicans have to guard just 10.
Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said most Iowans may not be paying as much attention to the math in Congress, but the chairmanships that are up for grabs are critical to legislative power. Iowa has the most senior Senate delegation of any other state, he noted, with 60 years between Harkin and Grassley.
“The chairmen control the agenda in terms of issues,” Hagle told The Gazette. “You hear talk about things getting stuck in committee or getting out of committee, and that’s what we’re talking about.”
Harkin spokeswoman Kate Cyrul-Frischmann said Harkin would use continued power as the Health Committee chairman to push legislation on retirement security, promote more workforce benefits for the disabled and protect the Affordable Care Act.
“He intends to take on new efforts as well, such as making college costs more transparent,” she said.
Harkin also is the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds health, education and labor programs, Cyrul-Frischmann noted, and would push for greater education funding should he remain in power.
“Another priority will be to preserve the safety net for people who are struggling by providing adequate funding for child care, Head Start, meals for seniors and other related programs,” she said.
Grassley has been a chairman or ranking member of the Finance Committee nearly every year since 2001. But his position near the top of the Judiciary Committee gives him the most power and would represent the most significant change should Republicans win the Senate. Should Obama win re-election and Republicans win the Senate, Grassley would become perhaps the president’s most powerful critic on Capitol Hill.
A Grassley aide said the senator would use the chairmanship to enforce “vigorous oversight.”
“This means ensuring the checks and balances of our system of government are enforced,” the aide said. “It means pressing for a balanced-budget amendment to bring about fiscal discipline in Washington. It means holding accountable the federal bureaucracy by ensuring taxpayer dollars through grants aren’t susceptible to waste, fraud and abuse. And it means looking for legal avenues for qualified immigrant workers to help expand our economy.”
To a lesser extent, the aide said Grassley would also use the chairmanship to address medical malpractice reform, intellectual property issues such as economic espionage and Internet laws, judicial reforms and agricultural legislation.
In the House, Republicans rule by a margin of 240 seats to 190, with another five seats vacant. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has put the odds of a Democratic takeover at 1 in 3.
But if there is a Democratic takeover, Iowa Democrat Leonard Boswell could move up on the House Agriculture Committee, should he survive his re-election battle against Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican. Boswell is the fourth most senior Democrat on the panel.
If Republicans remain in charge, Rep. Steve King, the fourth most senior Republican on the committee, could also assume more power. That, of course, would depend on King winning his re-election race against Democrat Christie Vilsack.
Hagle said the outcome of the presidential race will have much to do with the congressional ramifications, starting with the potential of a “coattail effect” as Iowans go to the polls to decide between Obama and Romney. Obama currently leads Romney by 2.3 percent in the state, according to a polling average maintained by the website Real Clear Politics.
“Ultimately it would take a pretty strong effect by Romney to tip the balance in the Senate, and right now it doesn’t seem like that’s happening,” he said. “But if he wins convincingly, there is a chance.”