Tennessee turnover: what will new lawmakers mean for influence in Congress?

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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) -- For the first-time in more than half-a-century, a Duncan won't be in D.C. representing Eastern Tennessee next year. That twist is just one of many shakeups in the Volunteer State, where this election year resembles a political version of musical chairs.

"The sweetest word I hear now is not 'Congressman', it's 'Poppa'," Rep. Jimmy Duncan (R-Tennessee) said in a recent interview. The 70-year-old said he wants to spend more time with family - a reason almost every lawmaker gives when they leave.

"In my case it happens to be true," he said.

Duncan's father - John Sr. - passed away in office 30 years ago, and that's when Jimmy stepped-in. As he prepares to walk away, the Knoxville grandfather said he still wants to bring a bit of humanity back to Congress, reduce the national debt, and wind down foreign conflicts.

"I'm going to continue to speak out on the things that I care the most about," he said.

At least half of Tennessee's U.S. Senators, and a third of its representatives won't return to their current seats next January. Republican Sen. Bob Corker is retiring, and Rep. Marsha Blackburn is leaving the House to run for his seat in hopes of keeping it under the party's control. Another republican, Rep. Diane Black, wants to trade her place on Capitol Hill for the Governor's mansion in Nashville.

Experts said it's reasonable to expect all those changes to diminish the state's influence in Congress, but not necessarily the case.
"If you had asked me that question for the last 200 years, I would say 'yes', if a state has a more junior delegation, they're going to have less influence, less ability to bring home the bacon to their constituents," said Georgetown University Political Science Professor Mark Rom, "but the norms of Congress have changed."

Rom said Congress cracked down on pork - a practice where long-serving members would use their seniority to secure federal cash for projects in their district. Rom said there are still benefits to tenure in the Senate. "In the House, it's not quite irrelevant," he said, "but it's fairly close to it."

Rom said the new leverage in Washington is having the ear of the president, and rank isn't a requirement to gain that political advantage.

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