The gains Democrats amassed this week in the House of Representatives and governors’ offices throughout the country should strengthen California’s hand, creating potent new allies in the state’s pursuit of progressive policies and blunting White House assaults on its agenda.
On climate change, immigration and healthcare, all issues on which California is taking a national lead, the landscape has shifted with the election. The new Democratic-controlled House will give the state expanded tools to fight the Trump administration and empower California to more energetically enforce emissions rules and other environmental protections.
And the Democratic gains in statehouses nationwide will give California a bigger alliance of partners than it has had in recent years.
“It bolsters our case,” Gov. Jerry Brown said. “We can’t be steamrolled now.”
Plans for robust House oversight have the potential to slow or even derail some of the administration’s rollbacks of landmark federal environmental protections California has been fighting.
The control congressional Democrats will gain over the federal budget could be used to steer the Justice Department away from its attacks on California’s liberal net neutrality, “sanctuary city” and recreational marijuana use laws. And it will give a boost to the state’s efforts to stop the administration from adding a citizenship question on the census, which California warns would result in immigrants not being counted.
“It is a game changer,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Fremont). “When you control one of these branches of Congress, it becomes easier to stop things. The agencies will have to be much more careful about abiding by the law…. The House can now exercise oversight and prevent them from not allowing California to implement its values and its laws.”
California still has a tough road ahead. Control of a single congressional chamber and a shift of power in other states hardly signals a return to the days nearly a decade ago when California worked in tandem with a Democratic Congress and the Obama administration to advance a shared national vision on climate change, immigration and innovation. But the electoral gains bring welcome reinforcements for the state in its battle with the Trump administration.
Wins by Democrats in state attorneys general offices will increase the coalition joining California in such efforts, giving added weight to the state’s claims and expanding the fronts on which it can battle. Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin — which all appeared to have elected Democratic attorneys general on Tuesday — will now probably be joining California and its allies in court in many of the fights.
They are entering the fray as the administration is seeking to gut power-plant emission rules that were crucial to the U.S. meeting its obligations under the Paris agreement on global warming that President Trump has disavowed. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is also moving to unravel fuel economy standards that are a linchpin of climate action in California and across the country and take away California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set its own aggressive tailpipe emission rules.
The state legal actions may soon be aided by House inquiries that could bog down some of the administration’s key policy initiatives.
“It’s significant that Democrats now have this power,” said Richard Revesz, a regulatory law professor at New York University. “A lot of the efforts to roll back Obama administration regulations are on weak legal footing. There are glaring legal or analytical weaknesses. Bringing attention to them can be a good strategy.”
Republicans took that approach when resisting President Obama’s agenda, and succeeded in using the material from its hearings to persuade states not to follow new Obama rules. Democratic lawmakers can now use subpoenas to investigate the communications between agencies and and the companies they regulate for improper corporate influence over rule making. Evidence they unearth can be used in the ongoing legal battles launched by California.
On Wednesday morning, energy lobbyists were already advising their clients to expect a raft of investigations in which they could be called to testify, and briefing them on how to respond to subpoenas.
Companies will find themselves up against lawmakers like Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), a high-ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee eager to make use of the new authority Democrats will have in the House.
“This will help us protect California,” he said. “The question is where to begin. Many of these policies are on flimsy legal ground. To the extent the next Congress can expose just how flimsy that ground is, it becomes much more likely the legal challenges can prevail.”
California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra said he’s eager for House Democrats to start investigating the administration’s addition of a question to the census asking if participants are U.S. citizens. His office warns that the question has the potential to deter so many people in California from participating that it could cost the state a congressional seat and billions of dollars in federal assistance. But the administration has delayed turning over information the state needs to build its case in court, and time is fast running out.
“Having a chamber willing to do oversight will help us get these answers,” Becerra said.
The attorney general is encouraged that, thanks to the election, the coalition of attorneys general fighting the Trump administration will represent more than half of all states and an even bigger share of the national economy.
“There is clearly strength in numbers,” Becerra said.
Also growing substantially this week is the climate action alliance that California helped build to lead the nation toward meeting the goals in the Paris agreement. The Democrats flipped seven governors’ offices Tuesday, some in states that have been deeply resistant to climate action.
“Six of those seven new governors have already said they want their states to meet the Paris targets,” said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, chair of the Democratic Governors Assn. “The biggest change here is the states can move forward doing things Trump doesn’t like.
“Like a lot of things in life,” said Inslee, “the more people that join you, the more you feel encouraged, and the more difficult it is to create a political firestorm to come after you.”