WASHINGTON — Bakersfield is in; the Bay Area is out. But California as a whole could hold its own in the new Congress that starts today.
The shifting Capitol Hill currents are summed up in the demotion of soon-to-be former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the ascension of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, as the next House majority whip.
Added up, though, the Republicans’ rise and the Democrats’ fall to House minority status may turn out to be a wash for the Golden State.
“California’s clout in D.C. isn’t diminishing so much as it is changing,” said Marc Sandalow, associate director of the University of California’s Washington Center. “It’s a different group of Californians who will be powerful.”
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Roughly speaking, rural Californians will have a louder voice while urban liberals will be dampened. But if the state’s 53 House members ever unite around an issue — a rare occasion — they will still flex the muscle that comes with having the largest delegation in Congress.
“We still have clout, it’s just in a different party,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, adding that “California has never seemed to have a history of pulling together. It’s almost like we have 53 independent fiefdoms.”
Congressional clout defies easy calculation. Traditional, but imperfect, measurements include committee chairmanships, patronage pull and dollars scored.
During the now-concluded 111th Congress, Californians chaired five committees in the House. During the new 112th Congress, Californians will chair four House committees. It’s hard to say the change amounts to a meaningful loss of power.
Some gavels being lost are admittedly among the biggest on Capitol Hill, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee chairmanship once aggressively held by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Los Angeles. California Democrats have similarly run panels that oversee issues including education, labor, foreign relations and veterans’ issues.
The chairmanships being gained, though, include that of the House Armed Services Committee. Republican Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita will now chair the panel, which authorizes a $725 billion annual defense budget important to California military contractors.
“Looking at it on a nonpartisan basis, we still have a lot of members in senior positions,” said Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia.
McCarthy, in particular, is a relative newcomer to the House, first winning election in 2006 to represent a district that stretches from Kern to San Luis Obispo counties. But as the new House majority whip, he commands a sizable staff as well as responsibilities for counting votes.
McCarthy is the first Central Valley lawmaker to serve in the powerful House whip position since Merced County native Tony Coelho, a Democrat, resigned in 1989 amid a potential ethics inquiry.
Pelosi, meanwhile, will be curtailed on multiple fronts. Her leadership staff, which numbered about four dozen while she was speaker, will likely be cut to 30 or so. This will hinder her reach, as will the fact that some of her fellow lawmakers, including Costa, broke with her following November’s election.
“We have no regrets,” Pelosi insisted in a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday. “I don’t really look back, I look forward.”
Even while in the majority, Pelosi and her California lieutenants could do little about the state’s longstanding balance-of-payments disparity. For every $1 Californians pay in federal taxes, the federal government spends only about 78 cents in California. Many of the reasons, including a youthful population that doesn’t need Medicare or Social Security payments, are beyond easy political correction.
Earmarked federal spending, another traditional test of congressional clout, will have less cachet in the new Congress. House Republicans have pledged not to seek individual earmarks, though senators have not made a similar promise.
Pelosi, for instance, requested on her own or with other lawmakers 41 earmarks totaling $75 million included in fiscal 2010 spending bills. Most, though not all, were for projects in her hometown of San Francisco.
In the new GOP regime, these requests will fall on deaf ears. In a way, this eases the blow for Californians who had hoped that Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, would become chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Even if the 76-year-old Lewis had won the post, he would have been limited in his ability to steer money toward California.
One of the loudest microphones, though, may belong to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, who will take over the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa has already stressed his intention to dig into the Obama administration, though it remains to be seen whether his attack on what he calls “the hundreds of billions of dollars of waste” can translate to tangible benefits for California.
“Mostly what we’re going to do is shed light,” Issa told Fox News.
Californians also will be picking up subcommittee chairmanships, some more parochially meaningful than others.
California’s perennial water woes, for instance, will now be the purview of conservative Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, new chair of the House water and power panel. More remotely, Rep. Gary Miller, R-Diamond Bar, will head a panel devoted to international monetary policy.
Michael Doyle covers California issues for The Tribune from the McClatchy Washington Bureau.