It wasn't so long ago that California's congressional delegation prowled the halls of Congress as not just the biggest, but the most muscular, most senior, and most powerful on Capitol Hill. Those days are increasingly in the rearview mirror.
Rep. Henry Waxman's announcement that he was calling it quits after four decades capped a series of departures that promises to leave the once-vaunted delegation depleted and diminished heading into the next Congress.
California will have lost a combined total of more than 400 years of congressional experience between the 2012 and 2014 elections—an enormous sum in an institution where seniority is king and power is often still accumulated by the decade.
"It's a big hit for California," said Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-Calif. "It's a changing of the guard."
It's not just the years walking out the door but the politicians themselves. Waxman has been one of the Democratic Party's leading legislators for a generation. Retiring Rep. Buck McKeon is the influential Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. And Rep. George Miller, one of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's closest confidantes and a mainstay of shaping the nation's education policies, is headed for the exit after 40 years.
That bipartisan trio—all of whom announced their retirements this month—leaves behind a combined century of service in the House.
"We're losing seniority. We're losing expertise. We're losing legislative skills," said Bill Carrick, a longtime California political strategist, who also worked in Washington D.C. for Sen. Edward Kennedy. "It's a tough thing to replace."
And one of the biggest shoes could still be yet to drop. The back-to-back departures of Waxman and Miller, two top Pelosi lieutenants, have again stirred speculation that the San Francisco Democrat could be next. Pelosi has repeatedly said she's staying put, and has started the paperwork to run again.
But the California exodus began in the 2012 cycle when a spate of retirements, electoral defeats, and new district boundaries decimated the delegation. The freshman class of 2014 included a remarkable 14 Californians.
They replaced influential lawmakers such as Reps. Howard Berman, a past Democratic leader of the Foreign Affairs Committee; David Dreier, the Rules Committee chairman; Jerry Lewis, a former Appropriations chairman; and Dan Lungren, who was "mayor" of the Capitol as chairman of the Administration panel.
"It does impact California and our ability to influence and get what we need," said Sanchez, though she praised the fresh energy of the "new blood."
California still has the biggest squadron of lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The 38 Democrats who comprise the state's 53-member delegation are greater in number than any other single state's entire House cohort. But what California has in size, it lacks in unity. The notoriously fractious delegation is barely on speaking terms.
Even as a historic drought has left the state parched for water, Sanchez couldn't remember the last time Democrats and Republicans all gathered in the same room to strategize about California's common needs. "That's a good question," she said. "I'm not sure."
"We have a very large delegation, and if there were more cooperation California would be better positioned to tackle the problems of the state," Sanchez said.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, who chairs the California Democratic delegation, which meets weekly, said she's "got to the point" where she's tired of "trying to explain why we didn't meet" as a bipartisan group. Relations are so bad that Lofgren was pointing to a recent bipartisan gathering over glasses of wine, organized by California freshmen, as a positive "first step."
"Three Republicans showed up," she said, with a wisp of hope.
California is not without key posts in Congress. The state still has two of the most senior U.S. senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer. There's Pelosi and Rep. Xavier Becerra in the House Democratic leadership. Rep. Kevin McCarthy is the majority whip. GOP Rep. Darrell Issa is the Oversight chairman. Rep. Maxine Waters is the ranking Democrat on Financial Services. Sanchez is the top Democrat on Ethics. And lawmakers from the state hold sway on numerous subcommittees.
But California members already held most of those positions in addition to the vacated slots of the departed and departing members.
Carrick said the effects of the departures could be particularly acute because of the congressional politics of state delegations. "Even though we have a lot of members of Congress, we engender a lot of jealousy," he said, "... because people in smaller and medium states—they take the attitude that we can't give California everything."
This article appears in the January 31, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.