Nevada has almost always ranked near the bottom in state population, yet its leaders in Washington often have been among the nation's most powerful.
That might seem contradictory. But the key reason has been the United States Senate. Like most legislative bodies, it long has operated on the seniority system: the longer a senator serves, the likelier he or she will chair a committee, especially a powerful one like Appropriations, which doles out federal funds, or Judiciary, which considers some of the president's most important appointments.
Also, even as it has changed, the Senate has retained some of its traditions, besides seniority. One of those traditions has been deference, especially to elders and expertise. Nevadans have understood their place in the institution and acted accordingly, to their state's benefit.
Yielding to elders means that senators expect their junior colleagues to accept less exciting committee assignments and to refrain from seeking publicity. Granted, the latter has changed with the advent of twenty-four-hour cable news and talk, and with celebrities such as Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both of whom won high marks from their colleagues for acting "senatorial" during their first terms, even as they received scrutiny not normally accorded new senators.
Deferring to expertise relates to committee service, but also to where a senator is from. Alan Bible, a senator from Nevada from 1954 to 1974, focused on land, water, and mining issues—logical choices for a Nevadan. He told an interviewer that among his many colleagues, he resented only two senators, Republican Jacob Javits and Democrat Robert F. Kennedy, because they refused to accept his expertise and opinions on those issues, which were beyond their scope.
Nevada's national influence has been due to other factors, too. Some of it had more to do with personal relationships—friendships formed outside of Congress or even the nation's capital. Or Nevadans introduced legislation that affected national or international affairs. This tradition extends back to the years just after statehood.
One of Nevada's first U.S. senators, William Morris Stewart (1865-75, 1887-1905), wrote the National Mining Laws of 1866 and 1872, which still largely govern the industry today. He also drafted the final version of the Fifteenth Amendment, stating that the right to vote could not be denied on account of race. Thus, Stewart contributed to the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act, and, first, to a century of African American disenfranchisement through such means as poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.
Francis Newlands was still in the House when he was an architect of the 1902 reclamation act that led to dam-building throughout the Southwest and a federal agency, the Bureau of Reclamation. After a decade as Nevada's lone representative (1893-1903), he became a U.S. senator, serving until his death in 1917. He became a friend and adviser to President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), influencing several pieces of progressive legislation that Wilson introduced.
Key Pittman (1913-40) became a member of the Foreign Relations Committee early in his tenure and became chairman when Democrats regained control of the Senate in the Franklin Roosevelt landslide of 1932. He also served on the Appropriations and Judiciary Committees, both crucial. Chairing a major committee gave Pittman entrée to the White House; so did his seniority and his election as Senate president pro tempore, at the time making him next in line to the presidency after Roosevelt and Vice President John Garner. Pittman used his position to obtain appropriations for Nevada.
Pat McCarran (1933-54) rose to chair Judiciary in 1944 and become a senior member of Appropriations. He used his committee assignments to bring Nevada military bases, atomic testing, and such federal projects as Basic Magnesium—he later engineered the plant's sale to the state. He also conducted investigations of alleged communist infiltration in the U.S., ranking with Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin during the witch hunts of the late 1940s and early 1950s. McCarran introduced the legislation that created the Civil Aeronautics Board, a forerunner of the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as two anti-communist measures: the McCarran Internal Security Act, which required suspected communists to divulge their political affiliations, and the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, which limited immigration from Eastern Europe.
Alan Bible (1954-74) chaired key Appropriations and Interior subcommittees. During Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Bible played a role in several major environmental measures, most notably the creation of national parks and monuments throughout the U.S. This also enabled him to engage in horse-trading with colleagues: if a senator from Kansas wanted a national recreation area, Bible would shepherd the measure through, building good will that he could use to Nevada's advantage.
Howard Cannon (1959-82) chaired Commerce and key subcommittees related to aviation and defense, areas of great interest to him as a World War II fighter pilot. In the late 1970s, Cannon was the father of airline deregulation, which benefited Nevada's tourist economy but had a far-reaching impact across the U.S.
Paul Laxalt (1974-87) served on Judiciary and Appropriations, but never became a committee chair or fathered major legislation. But he wielded great influence as the national campaign manager for his close friend Ronald Reagan, who was governor of California while Laxalt held the same post in Nevada. Chairing Reagan's presidential campaigns, and the Republican Party, gave Laxalt a role at Washington's highest levels. He also used his party influence to secure important appointments for Nevadans, improving the image of a state perceived nationally as a desert or as a haven for mobsters.
Harry Reid spent four years in the House before winning the Senate seat Laxalt vacated in 1986. From the beginning, he was sensitive to Senate traditions, seeking help from senior colleagues and winning a seat on Appropriations. After he won a third term in 1998, his colleagues chose him as whip, based on the English Parliamentary role of a "whipper-in" who rounds up votes. In Congress, the position is essentially that of assistant leader. When Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota lost his reelection bid in 2004, Reid's colleagues unanimously chose him to succeed Daschle, making Reid the highest ranking senator in Nevada's history.
Others from Nevada have wielded national influence without holding office, although these cases have been rarer. The most notable example is Sig Rogich, a longtime Nevada advertising executive and political consultant whom Laxalt brought into Reagan's campaigns. Rogich produced commercials for Reagan and President George Bush's campaigns, and worked in the Bush White House as an imagemaker before and after a brief tenure as ambassador to Iceland.
In 1966, scholar Gilman Ostrander published a study of Nevada, which he called a "great rotten borough," based on English Parliament districts that might consist entirely of one nobleman's castle. Ostrander saw Nevada as unjustifiably influential: its population hardly merited two U.S. senators, but being a state gave Nevada all the rights of other states. Forty years later, Nevada remains one of the smaller states, but its power and influence are unquestioned.