California’s Clout in Congress Is in Dramatic Decline

The state is losing chairmanships, expertise, and legislative skill — all things crucial to maintaining leverage in Congress.

Rep. Henry Waxman in his Rayburn Building office. 
National Journal
Shane Goldmacher
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Shane Goldmacher
Jan. 30, 2014, 1:22 p.m.

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.”

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