VIEW FROM WASHINGTON / ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT : Townhouse Basement With View Toward California's Well-Being

ROBERT A. ROSENBLATT writes about banking, health care and other national issues from The Times' Washington bureau

Some of the most serious thinking about California and the federal government takes place in the modest basement offices of a red brick townhouse near Capitol Hill. No panoramic view of the Capitol, no plush furniture, no cocktail parties attended by smooth-talking Gucci-shoed lobbyists.

The New Jersey Avenue basement, which sometimes gets flooded when it rains heavily, is the spartan home of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research--a combination think tank, legislative early-warning system and crystal-ball gazer for the state's mammoth congressional delegation.

Worried about the impact of military base closings? The institute can supply facts and figures on the local jobs dependent on a military installation.

What happens to California when Medicaid gets cut 20% and is converted to a block grant? The institute provides the delegation with statistical ammunition to fight for a formula that will get California more money because it has a rising population of poor and sick people.

How can the state go after a scientific project to generate fusion power with lasers? The institute prepares a report showing that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory should get the cash from Washington because it has the best optical laser technology and the most accomplished scientists to perform the research.

The often-fractious California delegation--two Democratic senators, 27 House Democrats and 25 House Republicans--makes good use of the facts and figures from the politically neutral institute.

But first, the organization must be relentlessly objective: As Sgt. Joe Friday on "Dragnet" used to say, "Just the facts, ma'am." When your clients range from the very liberal Democrat Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles to the very conservative Republican Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach, you have to eschew any tinge of partisanship.

"We like to think there are probably 90% of issues on which the delegation can agree," said Tim Ransdell, the institute's director of policy research. "In the 10% where they cannot agree, there may be some high-profile and spicy issues," he said. "But we find there are an awful lot of nuts and bolts opportunities for cooperation."

Prompted by the example of the influential Northeast-Midwest Institute, key figures in California's delegation decided in 1990 to devise a California version.

"They figured California would benefit from the advice of some entity specially designed to look out for the economic interest of the state," Ransdell said. Promoting the idea were the men then serving as their parties' deans in the House, Democrat Don Edwards and GOP veteran Carlos J. Moorhead, the two senators, Democrat Alan Cranston and Republican Pete Wilson.

They raised money and recruited board members from businesses, universities and labor unions, and the institute formally opened in 1991. It's lean, with a staff of three and an annual budget of $300,000. "We try to do quite a bit with minimal resources," Ransdell boasted.

Bulletins go out weekly when Congress is in session. A recent issue discussed hearings on natural disaster insurance, provided an update on an immigration reform bill in the House Judiciary Committee, and noted that officials from California were in town to talk about the proposed Alameda Corridor, a high-speed rail link from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

As Congress struggles to balance the federal budget, the struggle for scarce resources will grow ever more fierce, and the need for expert analysis even more pressing.

"With a shrinking federal pie, the state has to keep an eye out for its share," Ransdell noted. "Other states look to California for deep pockets--because we're the largest state, we're the easiest target whether it is Medicaid or welfare or any other program."

Helping California legislators in the fight to grab a share of funds from Washington is just one part of the institute's mission.

Just as important is helping the legislators push for longer-range federal policies that will help the nation's premier high-tech, export-driven region. Such as supporting a change in the tax code to get faster depreciation for semiconductor manufacturing equipment. Or persuading trade officials to take a tougher stance in protecting software producers from being ripped off by unlicensed copycat manufacturers overseas.

California is changing rapidly, with its economic base "transitioning from aerospace and defense to a more diversified, internationally focused, technology and service-oriented economy," according to a special report just prepared for the California Institute by its economic advisory council, a panel headed by James Hosek, corporate research manager at Rand Corp. and Stephen Levy, co-director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. The report takes a broad look at the economy in 1996 and beyond, proclaiming the need for federal research and development funds, protection for patents and a smoother defense-conversion process.

From the townhouse basement, the torrent of legislative alerts, scholarly reports, and statistics keeps flowing to the offices of California's massive bloc of legislators. It's some of their best ammunition in the campaign to get California its fair share--and more, if possible.

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