Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson (D-Los Angeles) recently lamented the predicament facing incumbent lawmakers in the San Fernando Valley area, and throughout the country, who must go before financially distressed, discontented voters next year.
“There’s an awful lot of people out there who are hurting, and they are worried,” Beilenson said. “They tend to take out their anger on foreign aid and immigration and, to a certain extent, Congress and the government. The worst part is that a lot of people are in trouble, and I’m not able to tell them we’re doing very much to help them.”
Lawmakers, many of whom saw their comfortable reelection margins shaved last year, could face a political triple whammy next November: anger toward incumbents, a sluggish economy and reelection campaigns in newly drawn districts. Moreover, as several Valley representatives noted, the federal government’s options to deal with the nation’s ills appear severely constrained by a $350-billion budget deficit and continuing conflict between a Republican president and a Democrat-led Congress in a divisive election year.
These circumstances could be amplified in California, which faces new state budget woes even after adopting the largest tax increases in the state’s history last year. The state lags behind the rest of the country in its economic recovery. And with the 1992 reapportionment in the hands of the courts, lawmakers could find themselves running in dramatically different--and possibly far more competitive--districts than they represented in the 1980s.
Finally, political corruption has hit especially close to home. Last week, U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-California) was severely reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee for “improper and repugnant” actions on behalf of Lincoln Savings & Loan owner Charles H. Keating Jr., and state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) resigned and agreed to plead guilty to income tax fraud and racketeering charges arising from an extended FBI inquiry in Sacramento.
“There’s an old phenomenon that people hate Congress but love their congressman,” said Paul Clarke, a Northridge political consultant. “I’m noticing something new this year. . . . They express an anger that I have not seen before that is directed at an individual, not just the institution.”
One of the specific gripes, Clarke said, has been check-bouncing by members at the House bank. In the Valley, Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) acknowledged last month that he had written overdrafts of $3,000 and $105, which he said were oversights due to mathematical errors. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said his check record was a private matter and refused to disclose it. A House panel is conducting an ethics inquiry into whether any members abused their accounts.
Valley-area representatives interviewed in recent days acknowledged such political storm clouds but generally said they are not steering a different course to seek cover. None said that they had changed campaign fund-raising strategies, district mailing or other practices, though several indicated they may do so when a court-appointed panel announces new district boundaries.
“I’m going to have to run for reelection based on my positions on critical issues and on my performance in office,” Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City) said of facing a potentially unhappy electorate. “If they just want change for change’s sake, then I’ll be gone. I’ll be history. But I think the public’s more sophisticated than that.”
Nevertheless, all the lawmakers contacted said they believe that institutional change is needed. Each supports some form of campaign finance reform--although members expressed key partisan differences on specifics. And all said that they are at least open to reducing the number of congressional committees and staffers to increase efficiency as well as save money.
Most, however, believe term limits are not a solution. Rep. Carlos J. Moorhead (R-Glendale) joined Democratic congressmen Beilenson, Berman and Waxman--all legislative veterans--in opposing this proposal. Only Gallegly, serving his third term in the House, said he supported such restrictions on tenure in office.
Reps. William M. Thomas (R-Bakersfield) and Jerry Lewis (R-Highland), each of whom represents parts of the Antelope Valley, could not be reached for this story.
But Thomas has spearheaded GOP efforts to change campaign finance laws and has long supported reducing the number of committees and House staffers. He contends that changing the campaign laws, as well as creating fairer, more competitive congressional districts, would do more to encourage turnover and improve representation than term limits, an aide said.
Despite the national political turbulence, most Valley-area lawmakers would appear to have no reason to panic. California will gain new districts as a result of its population growth--unlike other states that will lose them--and all of the incumbents represent areas that are so solidly partisan in their favor that even significant shifts in population should not make them vulnerable to a challenge from the other party.
“I’ve seen a lot of potential plans, and none would give me a bad district,” said Moorhead, a conservative who has represented Glendale and surrounding communities since 1973.
Waxman and Beilenson, however, could be exceptions. Two Republican-backed reapportionment plans would collapse the heart of Waxman’s Hollywood-based district and Beilenson’s Westside Democratic base into a single district. This would force the two longtime liberals to oppose each other in a primary or find another district outside their strongholds in which to run.
Another reason for incumbents to feel that they can withstand a season of political discontent is their stockpile of campaign funds. According to their most recent campaign statements filed with the Federal Election Commission, which cover the period ending June 30, Moorhead had $713,262 on hand; Waxman, $427,985; Gallegly, $304,694; and Berman, $171,537. Lewis, meanwhile, had $321,515, and Thomas, $147,682.
Only Beilenson appears financially unarmed. The eight-term lawmaker, who does not accept contributions from political action committees and does little fund-raising in non-election years, reported a reserve of $992.
Each of the lawmakers said they support overhaul of the campaign finance system to reduce overall spending and the influence of special-interest PAC money. They split, however, over Democratic and Republican-sponsored proposals.
Beilenson, Berman and Waxman said they back a measure sponsored by Rep. Sam Gejdenson (D-Conn.) that would allow candidates to voluntarily limit their overall spending to $600,000 and restrict PAC contributions to $200,000 and individual contributions exceeding $200 to $200,000 as well. Candidates who agree to the limits and raise $60,000 would then be eligible for public funds matching the first $200 of each individual contribution.
Beilenson, a longtime proponent of public campaign financing, is seeking to amend Gejdenson’s bill to go even further. He would lower the spending cap to $400,000 and ban all PAC money. He would also begin matching individual contributions with federal funds at $30,000.
Waxman said that Gejdenson’s approach would result in fairer and more competitive elections. And Berman said it would encourage reliance on a more representative small-donor base. But critics maintain that public funding would ask already over-taxed voters to contribute, in effect, to candidates whose views they oppose and to negative advertising techniques they may deplore.
“As taxpayers, we’re all funding a lot of things the government does that we don’t approve, whether it’s defense, welfare, foreign aid,” Beilenson responded. “The tiny amount of money from tax dollars that would go to funding campaigns would be money well-spent. What it would mean is that no special interest will be able to give money to a candidate, who will then be responsive to the people who elected him.”
Thomas’ campaign finance proposal would reduce the maximum PAC contribution from $5,000 to $1,000--the same amount individuals can give--and require that at least half a candidate’s funds come from individuals within the lawmaker’s district. He said this would bring “political power back to the local level, where it belongs.”
Moorhead said he would cut in half the current $5,000 PAC limit, and Gallegly said he would ban all such giving. Gallegly supports Thomas’ proposal to require fund-raising within home districts. Moorhead, however, called this impractical in a region such as Southern California, where professional and community interests tend to overlap district boundaries.
All three Republicans strongly oppose public financing. “That would add insult to injury to the American taxpayer,” Gallegly said. “They’re already paying enough, but to have someone elected with money out of their pocket that they didn’t want to start with would be unconscionable.”
Moorhead, Berman, Waxman and Beilenson said that the proposal that former Los Angeles County Supervisor Pete Schabarum is pushing to limit the terms of California’s congressmen to eight years would cripple the state’s delegation by removing its leaders in the House, committee and subcommittee chairmen, and ranking members. In general, they said that such action, borne of public frustration, would be a mistake.
“We would be turning people out just as they were getting to understand the institution, the legislative process, how to get things done, and denying voters the opportunity to continue to vote for them,” said Waxman, who was first elected in 1974. “It’s an over-simplistic way to deal with the fact there are some undesirable incumbents.”
Gallegly is the one Valley lawmaker with a different opinion. “A three- or four-term-type limit would probably make a lot of sense,” he said. “What we should be doing is finding ways to get more qualified people involved in government, hopefully more people from the private sector, rather than lawyers. We need more business minds in Congress, people who meet a budget.”
Berman suggested that term-limit supporters show their sincerity by imposing one on themselves. “It’s like people who say they are against the pay raise and then take the money,” he said. “They should be ready to self-impose it, or else they are just engaging in demagoguery.”
In any case, Waxman predicted that many beleaguered members will simply decide to leave next year. “A lot of people are going to quit Congress because they feel so demoralized by these attacks,” he said. “When just being a congressman in the minds of some people means that you’ve committed a crime, many people are going to make a decision to quit.”
And Beilenson said he believes that the combination of new congressional districts and voter antipathy will cause additional seats to change hands at the polls as well.
“You will see a decent number of incumbents lose next year, a great many more than in recent years,” he said.