Team North Dakota rebootedThe long-serving “Team North Dakota” — the state’s three Democratic members of Congress who served together since 1992 — is a team no more after Sen. Byron Dorgan’s retirement and Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s Election Day defeat last year.
The long-serving “Team North Dakota” — the state’s three Democratic members of Congress who served together since 1992 — is a team no more after Sen. Byron Dorgan’s retirement and Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s Election Day defeat last year.
But Republicans John Hoeven and Rick Berg have now joined incumbent Democrat Kent Conrad in a new team that’s gearing up to fight for congressional funding for the state in an era of spending cuts and a focus on reducing the country’s growing deficit.
The trio has issued several joint statements since Hoeven and Berg took office earlier this month, announcing more than $540,000 in grants for several North Dakota fire departments, a $4.7 million federal loan to increase lodging near the oil fields in western North Dakota and $1.6 million in grants to help combat homelessness throughout the state.
It’s a sign of cooperation between the congressional delegation that goes beyond their party affiliations, Berg said.
“When you’re from North Dakota, you put North Dakota’s interest first ahead of party, ahead of position and everything else,” he said. “I just really feel that it’s kind of like a rebooting of ‘Team North Dakota.’”
Conrad said he’s had a few conversations with Berg and Hoeven since they took office, including phone calls to congratulate them after their Election Day victories and express hope that they’ll be able to work together on vital issues now facing the state.
“This is the beginning of a two-year period in which we will be the group representing North Dakota, so all of us have a responsibility to do our level best to be effective and work constructively together,” he said.
Hoeven said it’s the next phase of the “good working relationship” he shared with Conrad and then-state Rep. Berg during his 10 years as North Dakota’s governor, a position he resigned from late last year to prepare for his newly elected U.S. Senate seat.
“I’ve worked well with both of them,” he said. “The key to getting things done is we are going to have to be bipartisan in our approach here.”
Conrad said there are three big issues that he sees as a “natural” fit for the delegation’s agenda in Congress: drafting a new Farm Bill, getting permanent flood protection for the Red River Valley and dealing with the “crisis” that faces the Devils Lake Basin as the lake continues to rise.
But he expects it to be “very challenging” to secure federal funding for the state’s biggest needs, especially with the focus on reducing the country’s growing deficit that’s estimated to reach a record $1.5 trillion this year.
Hoeven said lawmakers face “very tight budgets” and a need to get spending under control.
“These are long-term projects that need to be there for the people of the state,” he said. “We’ll work together to make sure that we secure the funding and advance the projects.”
Berg said the deficit is “the biggest problem” now facing the country because it means 40 cents is borrowed for every dollar that’s spent by the federal government.
“The big issue we have out here is getting America back on track and getting our economy going,” he said. “The first step of that is to show the public and small businesses that we can manage our budget like we did in North Dakota.”
Another potential roadblock is President Barack Obama’s vow in the State of the Union to veto any spending bill that includes earmarks — something Conrad said would “make it harder to get results for states like North Dakota.”
He said the earmark process has become a way for more rural states with lower populations to “have some kind of a fair chance to receive funding.” And North Dakota has “done very well” in getting funding through earmarks, he said.
The state received $197 per capita in federal funding for special projects last year, an amount topped only by Hawaii.
“Those funds that would have been designated by the North Dakota congressional delegation will now be decided by people that run agencies here in Washington,” Conrad said. “The tendency will be to send that money to East and West Coast states because that’s where the population is.”
Conrad said it’s “always been a battle” over the years to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to deal with the rising Devils Lake, something that could be worsened by a ban on earmarks.
“It’s been a fight every step of the way and I assume it will continue to be, especially in this budget environment.”
Loss of seniority
North Dakota’s reconfigured delegation also will have to deal with the dramatic drop in congressional seniority with the exit of Pomeroy and Dorgan, who had a combined 48 years in Congress.
Conrad has served in the Senate since 1986, a stint that has allowed him to become a senior member on three Senate Committees and chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. But he announced earlier this month that he would not seek re-election to a fifth term in 2012, concluding a 24-year career in the Senate.
That means that by 2013, none of the state’s three members of Congress will have more than two years of experience.
“I don’t think there’s any question that it will affect us,” Conrad said. “In the Senate, if you don’t have seniority, you simply aren’t in the room where the decisions are made.”
Hoeven said seniority is an issue, but the state’s newest members of Congress aren’t being left out of the decision-making process.
On Thursday, Hoeven was named to four key Senate committees: Appropriations, Energy and Natural Resources, Agriculture and Indian Affairs. Berg, meanwhile, is one of only two congressional freshmen with a spot on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxation and trade issues.
“All of us are working to get into position to do the best possible job we can for the state as well as for serving the people of this country,” Hoeven said. “We’ll work hard on these things and we’ll work together and, ultimately, we’ll have to make the case based on the merits.”
Berg said Conrad’s decision to not seek re-election could take away the importance of political party affiliations that could otherwise divide them, especially during the campaign season.
“It kind of takes the partisanship out of the relationship I think I’ll have with Sen. Conrad,” he said.
Still, he said it helps that North Dakota’s delegation includes members in the majority party in both chambers of Congress — Conrad in the Democratic-controlled Senate and Berg in the Republican-controlled House.
“As we get into this and we have to work things out between the House and Senate, I really see that as a good thing.”
Johnson reports on local politics. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to email@example.com.