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Op-Ed: Don't Be Too Quick to Gloat over Saying Bye-Bye to NJ GOP

The seniority of the state's congressional delegation is about to take a huge hit, and that's not something New Jersey can afford to lose

bob mchugh
Bob McHugh

Some folks are popping champagne corks at the prospect of New Jersey saying good-bye to some veteran Republican congressmen. But a closer look may offer reason to hold off on the hats and hooters.

Reps. Rodney Frelinghuysen of the affluent, Morris County-based 11th District and Frank LoBiondo, whose 2nd District includes Atlantic City and much of South Jersey, have announced their retirements. Fellow Republican Leonard Lance of the 7th District, which touches six counties - including all of Hunterdon - is said to face the possibility of a stiff challenge.

The departure of all three would cut the number of Republicans in the New Jersey House delegation from a paltry five to just three out of 12. The two remaining Republicans, Dean Chris Smith of Mercer County and moderate Tom MacArthur of Toms River, seem secure - so far.

In Congress, seniority is just about everything. It governs office space, leadership posts, and all-important committee assignments. And that's why the departures in the GOP, which now controls both Houses of Congress, could push NJ from near the head of the line to the back benches.

Elected in 1995, Frelinghuysen is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, one of the most powerful positions in Congress. He has as much as anyone to say about spending and is in a unique place to bring home the proverbial bacon.

In the recent words of The New York Times, "For New Jersey, Mr. Frelinghuysen's retirement means the loss of someone who could direct resources to the state. Mr. Frelinghuysen has been a strong advocate for one of the region's most important infrastructure projects, a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River. He had also been instrumental in steering about $900 million to replace the Portal Bridge near Newark, a key piece of the Northeast Corridor that is prone to malfunctions."

Those are big bucks.

LoBiondo, elected the same year, serves on the committees on Armed Services, Transportation and Infrastructure, and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. All three loom large on the national agenda.

Lance is the newest kid on the block, taking office in 2009. He serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee and has normally been a voice of reason.

Some might argue that 12 terms in Congress, such as Frelinghuysen is serving, are plenty. But that's a relatively short time in Washington. Republican Don Young of Alaska came to the House in 1973. Democrat Pat Leahy of Vermont has been in the Senate since 1975.

It's not longevity, though, at play here; it's loyalty. Frelinghuysen, Lance, and - to a lesser degree - LoBiondo have all failed to find a way to distance themselves from the toxicity of Donald Trump, while trying to stay loyal to their president and party. These guys are not alone: over 40 GOP members of Congress have decided to cash in their chips.

The loss of influence for Jersey will of course be tempered if, as increasingly likely, the Democrats take control of the House this year. But remember: the last Democratic shoo-in is now relegated to hawking a book and getting a few seconds on the Grammys.

"S--- happens," as the president might say.

There are plenty of Trump haters who hold the Republican Party responsible for all evil back to the bubonic plague. They'll be gleeful to give a one-finger wave bye-bye to three GOP congressman.

But we're in the Bizarro World of politics these days, like the alternative world in Superman comics where everything is the opposite of what it seems. We'll see.

Bob McHugh is a former reporter and spokesman for two New Jersey governors. He teaches journalism part time at Rutgers.

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