Ours may be the most populous state, but Californians have never wielded power in Congress commensurate with their electoral clout. In part, that's because seniority remains a key in building power in Washington and other states have repeatedly returned their senators and representatives to office, enabling them to climb the ladder and deliver federal largess.
Due to partisan and geographical differences, California's 52-member House delegation has difficulty uniting behind projects of special benefit to the whole state. When its members try to go it alone, they are successful only to the extent they hold positions of power.
During the 1980s and early 1990s, for instance, state Democrats finally won some House leadership posts and major committee chairmanships. But all that went out the window when the GOP seized control in 1994 and California Republicans lacked the seniority that had benefited their Democratic counterparts. Now, in the wake of the Nov. 3 election, the state delegation again stands ready to build the seniority needed to make a difference.
Regardless of which party is in power, California's influence would immeasurably increase if Democrats and Republicans could work together. This is important because the state often is shortchanged in Congress, particularly in legislation allocating benefits among the states. This despite the fact that California repeatedly sends more to Washington in tax dollars than it gets back in federal programs and installations, especially with the closure of military bases in the state in recent years.
This year may be different. Californians will hold some key positions in the House when the 106th Congress convenes in January, and that will help the state get its share in important fields such as defense spending and financing of water and energy projects.
Reps. Christopher Cox of Newport Beach and David Dreier of San Dimas have emerged as GOP powers in the House at a relatively young age, each 46. Cox waged a short but credible challenge to Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) for the job of House speaker when Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) resigned. Cox bowed out of that battle but remains chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, the fifth-ranking GOP leadership post. Dreier gains the chairmanship of the Rules Committee, which controls the flow of all major legislation and determines which versions of bills come to the floor for votes and under what conditions.
GOP Reps. Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Ron Packard of Oceanside both registered postelection gains by winning key subcommittee chairmanships on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Lewis will have major authority over the Defense Department budget as head of the national security subcommittee, while Packard will be chair of the energy and water subcommittee, a position of vital importance to California.
Democrats still hold a narrow margin of California House seats, 28 to 24, but their power was diminished considerably when Republicans took control of the House in the 1994 elections. They will miss longtime delegation leader Vic Fazio of West Sacramento, who was Democratic caucus chairman and did not seek an 11th term this year. In the Senate, the reelection of Sen. Barbara Boxer somewhat increases the team clout of Boxer and fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Power equations aside, though, the best way lawmakers can serve the state is to develop a more united front on issues important to California. Leaders such as Cox and Dreier should work with state Democrats, including Gov.-elect Gray Davis, to develop a California agenda of priority matters on which they can cooperate. California has the numbers; it deserves results.