Commentary

As state numbers shrink in Congress, its leadership shrinks even more

February 7, 2023 7:00 am

Indiana’s congressional delegation has no one in leadership positions. (Niki Kelly/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

The Hoosier state was buzzing on a Saturday afternoon in February over a basketball game. The storied rivalry of Indiana and Purdue was the sports event of the weekend—in America. The top ranked Boilers were actually one-point underdogs in Bloomington on Saturday to an IU team that played a great first half and then held on for dear life in the second for a 79-74 win.

The game mattered. Like it always used to matter. And not just to the students and alums of the two schools, or even to those of us clinging to memories of one-class high school basketball. This game mattered to the entire basketball world. 

As our state’s place at the top of college basketball is being reestablished, our status in Congress has become solidly nonexistent. And it will remain that way for the foreseeable future. 

Who are the power brokers from Indiana in what James Madison referred to as “the first branch of government?” Insert crickets chirping here. The answer is: there aren’t any.

In a state that featured Sens. Richard Lugar and Birch Bayh, and Rep. Lee Hamilton during my lifetime, we aren’t leading anything in the legislative branch these days. Even Rep. Dan Burton was the chairman of a committee in the U.S. House.

Indiana has been apportioned nine members of the U.S. House of Representatives in the 118th U.S. Congress. We have had as many as thirteen from 1875 to 1933, then twelve from 1933 to 1983. Our declining share of national population has cost us dearly in the “people’s House” since. 

Where’s the leadership?

However, a bigger concern of mine is that the members we do have aren’t leaders in any significant way. Yes, seven of our nine members of the House are Republicans, who currently control the chamber, which should mean more influence for Hoosiers. But it doesn’t. 

Two of those seven are freshmen. Two more are not seeking reelection in the House, Rep. Jim Banks who is leaving for a Senate run, and Rep. Victoria Spartz, who announced she won’t run again to focus on parenting her teenage children. Two others are Democrats and serve in the House minority.

Of the remaining three Republicans, it makes sense that Rep. Larry Bucshon, the medical doctor who represents Indiana’s 8th District in southwest Indiana, is a member of the powerful House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Especially because of that committee’s subcommittee on Health. But Dr. Bucshon, after twelve years in the House, doesn’t lead any of it. 

Likewise, it makes sense that Rep. Jim Baird, a farmer who serves Indiana’s 4th District in the western part of the state is a member of the Agriculture Committee, but he too won’t lead it or even any of its subcommittees. He is a pleasant, elderly gentleman, which almost disqualifies him from his caucus alone. 

Then there’s Rep. Greg Pence, who was elected to Indiana’s 6th District in 2018 on the strength of his position on, well, his last name. It appears that will continue to be his strength, coupled with his ongoing commitment to the avoidance of ever speaking publicly. 

Sen. Todd Young works on things. He will do things many of his GOP colleagues don’t have the courage to do, like vote for new gun legislation that no one in their right mind could vote against. However, he was just reelected for the first time. His stint running the Senate Campaign Committee in 2020 indicated he was expected to be a rising star in the body, but even if he eventually reaches elevated influence, it doesn’t appear any of that will actually occur anytime soon. 

The other senate seat is occupied by first-termer, Sen. Mike Braun, who isn’t running for a second. He will matter even less out there for the next two years. 

What’s next?

How have we let this happen to us? Primarily because our expectations are too low of our representatives in Washington. Look at our state’s standing on just about every measure outside of low taxation, and you will see a state that is, at best, in a state of stagnation. We aren’t doing our best in education, public health or talent attraction, and this time in our history will be easily identifiable for the role it has played in that steady decline. 

Indiana needs to matter again. We can start that long recovery by right sizing the expectations we have of our elected officials right now.

Basketball is part of our history and culture. It feels good when we get to live that history in the present. American leadership fits that bill too for us, but we appear to have gotten comfortable thinking of it as nothing but a memory. 

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Michael Leppert
Michael Leppert

Michael Leppert is an author, educator and a communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com.

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