Change in power in Congress hasn’t diminished California’s clout

California Republicans don’t have a lot of reasons for optimism — they lost every statewide race in November, their share of the state’s voters is plummeting and proposed new districts could give Democrats a supermajority in the Legislature and more seats in Congress in 2012.

But one surprising bright spot has been the House of Representatives. When the GOP took control of the body last year, many of those who rose to lead the 112th Congress were members of California’s congressional delegation.

California Republicans hold the third-highest leadership post and chair four powerful committees, nearly double the number the state should have based purely on population figures. Until now, California and its congressional delegation have been known for their Democratic leanings — only 19 members out of 53 are Republicans.

“It’s such a Democratic delegation. The idea of Republicans taking over and California still having a lot of power in the House is pretty significant and unusual,” said Christian Grose, an assistant professor of political science at USC. “It just shows what matters is seniority and staying power in the House as much as the political complexion of a state.”


But the burst of power has complicated efforts to find people to challenge Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein next year and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2014. Political observers say the congressional leaders are unlikely to relinquish their newfound powers to run when California has not elected a Republican statewide in years — unless a sweeping new method of drawing congressional districts creates hurdles for their reelection bids.

“As long as they’re in Congress, they’re not likely to leave their current post. They’re now in the majority, which means they have a lot of power where they are, whereas a race for statewide office would be chancy at best,” said Jack Pitney, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and former national GOP official.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield is the House whip, the third most powerful post in leadership and responsible for corralling votes. He could one day be the House speaker, third in line for the presidency.

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of Santa Clarita is chairman of the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the defense budget. Rep. David Dreier of San Dimas chairs the rules committee, which decides whether a bill will go to the floor of the House or die. Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista heads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, an investigative body with subpoena power that has needled the Obama White House.

And even the one that sounds the least powerful — the House Administration Committee, chaired by Rep. Dan Lungren of Gold River — is of importance to members, doling out room assignments and supplies.

“You never want to get the chair of the House Administration Committee angry,” said Richard Semiatin, an American politics professor at American University. “You may not have bottled water in your office, or pens.”

Of more relevance to voters is that committee chairs can ensure that California gets its share of federal expenditures, even if they want to shrink the overall size of government.

They “will ensure the state gets at least the same percentage of money it was getting” under Democratic rule, Semiatin said. “The fact you have four chairmen of committees could mean the state gets more in certain areas, such as defense.”

The number of plum assignments resulted from the sheer number of long-time members serving from California: Dreier has been in office for 30 years, McKeon for 18, Lungren for 16 in two tenures and Issa for 10. McCarthy is the baby of the group, elected to his first term in 2007, but he’s a member of the “Young Guns,” which includes Rep. Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) among other rising stars.

The veterans have benefitted from past redistricting practices, for which lawmakers of both parties manipulated district lines to protect incumbents.

“One of the ironic benefits of having gerrymandered state districts is that California has very senior members of Congress on both sides of the aisle,” said GOP strategist Rob Stutzman, an adviser to Lungren.

The once-a-decade redrawing of congressional districts is for the first time being conducted by an independent panel. Draft maps released this month suggest that the panel’s approach will result in some major changes in California’s congressional districts.

Dreier’s district is far more Democratic and Latino under the proposed maps, with some political observers questioning whether he will retire rather than run again. Lungren’s district also became more Democratic, though he is not in the straits that Dreier is in.

“If they lose their seats because of redistricting, then they might have an incentive to run for [statewide] office because they’re not losing anything,” Pitney said.