How Karen Bass managed to ascend in a GOP-controlled House

Rep. Karen Bass walks in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol in February.
Rep. Karen Bass walks in the hallways of the U.S. Capitol in February.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

When Karen Bass landed in Washington in early 2011, the newest member of Congress from California wasn’t merely geographically distant from the Democratic-controlled Sacramento she left behind.

She was elected to a House of Representatives that had just been taken over by Republicans, including a mammoth freshman class of 87 GOP lawmakers, many of them members of the tea party. By contrast, she was one of only nine freshman Democrats that year.

The GOP grip on Congress forced Bass — at that point, she was most recently accustomed to running the Democratic majority in the state Assembly — to pivot into trying to notch wins from deep in the minority and from the lowest rungs of seniority.


“I was so excited to go to Congress because I said, ‘[President] Obama’s in the White House, we control the House and the Senate. I’ll be able to do all these things,’” Bass, who is now running for L.A. mayor, said in an interview about her congressional career, recalling her excitement before the 2010 election.

That majority evaporated on election day and with it, Republicans took away earmarks, or the practice of setting aside congressional spending for a specific community project or entity. “That burst my little bubble and that made me, well before I was sworn in, try to figure out how I was going to function in a minority environment with no earmarks, and still in a fiscal crisis,” Bass said.

In some ways, the anticipation and letdown in Congress mirrored her experience in Sacramento: She went in with big liberal ambitions but found herself cutting programs in response to the recession.

That experience would come to shape how she operated over her nearly dozen years in Congress: While liberal, she figured out how to work with Republicans to score base hits on the issues she cared most about. She learned to tuck her initiatives into larger legislation or get streams of funding that advanced her causes into a spending bill.

Bass, 68, developed a reputation on Capitol Hill among Democrats and Republicans for an understated workhorse style, for being a straight shooter and for particular doggedness on two issues for which she cared deeply: foster children and the relationship between the United States and countries in Africa.


“A lot of people judge you by how big your headlines are or how many hits you get on social media,” said Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), the majority whip. “Karen ain’t going to go out calling people names. Karen is not going to go out yelling to high heavens. That is not her style.”

Perhaps to her own political detriment, Bass never acted like someone who came to Washington in search of higher office. Unlike the politicians who go on to seek a plum party leadership job or a promotion, she didn’t build a strong political operation while in Washington.

She didn’t prolifically fundraise in order to hand out money and collect chits with fellow Democrats. In fact, when then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden considered Bass for the vice presidency, some in Washington looked poorly on how little money she raised, particularly because of her proximity to Hollywood.

Despite this, she slowly rose to prominence within the House. In 2018, she was elected chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, a powerful voting bloc in the Democratic caucus.

Caruso has changed his party registration four times in the last 11 years.

June 2, 2022

Through that post, she was named House Democrats’ chief negotiator on a police reform effort in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. While the bill ultimately stalled in the Senate, the work elevated her profile. A few weeks after the negotiations began, she was a contender to be Biden’s running mate.

Her allies say she was a natural for the post because of her strong legislative skills. She pushed bills that aimed to improve the lives of foster children, to promote trade relations with Africa to support an estimated 100,000 American jobs, and to secure millions of dollars in COVID-19 relief funds for communities of color that were hardest hit by the pandemic.


Still, Bass’ reach had its limits. Even as she gained seniority and Democrats took control of the House in 2019, she never got a major bill enacted with her name at the top. The collapse of the police reform bill was a blow. Her only bill that would become law was the renaming of a post office near USC in honor of Marvin Gaye.

Rick Caruso, the businessman who is running in a dead heat with Bass in the mayor’s race, says that Bass’ legislative resume in Congress and the Assembly doesn’t have the executive experience to justify becoming mayor.

“She’s well intended but she’s had over 20 years and all the problems during her tenure in Congress [and the statehouse] have gotten worse and that’s not a hopeful sign for the future,” Caruso said. “I like Karen but it’s not the time to have a legislator. She never sponsored a bill on homelessness and had a long time to do it.”

Caruso made the remarks on the same day Bass hosted Marcia Fudge, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in L.A. to discuss the issue.

Bass’ camp argues she pushed several bills that tried to combat homelessness, including a bill signed by Biden in March “in which the congresswoman secured funds directly for her district to build housing and help prevent women who are victims of domestic violence from falling into homelessness,” said spokesman Zach Seidl.

Bass’ congressional career has other political vulnerabilities. She missed 8.1% of the House’s floor votes during her tenure, significantly more than the median of 2.1% among the lifetime records of other sitting members, according to GovTrack, a government transparency site. It’s an issue that the L.A. Police Protective League, which is supporting Caruso, has placed prominently in television ads.


L.A. mayoral candidate Karen Bass combines the focus on equity from her activist days with the practicality she learned in Sacramento and Washington.

May 29, 2022

Bass didn’t deny the statistics, but said it is misleading for the union to suggest she wasn’t showing up for work.

“I am definitely not going to make excuses. I have a 92% voting record and it should be a 100% voting record,” she said. “When I’ve missed votes, I’ve been on other official congressional business.”

Bass counts as her most significant achievement her work on foster care. She elevated the profile of foster youth — including by establishing a day for foster youth to shadow members of Congress on Capitol Hill — and pushed legislation that aimed to improve their lives, such as bolstering programs to help struggling families and improving the financial incentives in the system.

“It’s not just about the bills. It’s also about raising the consciousness of the entire Congress around the issue of child welfare,” Bass said. “It is a real bipartisan issue. It just doesn’t have the stature, the prominence — it’s not on top of mind for people.”

From her first days on Capitol Hill, Bass planted seeds to try to establish credibility and a reputation on the issue. She realized a seat on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee — which oversees child welfare, among many other issues — was out of reach in her first term and would be highly competitive in the future.

Instead, she tried to make herself a Hill leader on foster care by forming a bipartisan caucus on the topic, alongside a conservative Republican, then-Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.


“It may not have gotten a lot of attention,” said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland). “Nobody was working on that when she came to Congress. She works very hard, whether it’s behind the scenes or not.”

She also developed working relationships with House Republicans on the committee who inserted her bills into their larger pieces of legislation, a common legislative tactic that is often the most effective way to get small bills signed into law.

For that reason, Bass isn’t the only rank-and-file House member to have only one sponsored bill become law. In recent years, congressional leaders have increasingly combined bills into a single vote instead of having several votes, a tactic that means fewer members appear to be getting bills signed into law.

In 2012, she wrote a bill to help foster children maintain course credits while changing schools, legislation that was designed to stem the frequent problem of foster children having to repeat grades. She introduced the bill in the House but, knowing a Democrat’s bill was unlikely to go anywhere in the GOP-controlled chamber, she asked a Democratic Senate colleague, then-Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, to push the bill at that end of the Capitol.

Landrieu’s bill passed the Senate “and came over to the House and that was one of the first bills I did that is now law,” Bass said.

She was also a top proponent of a bill that reworked the incentives in the foster care system away from removing children from the home and toward helping parents resolve whatever issues that were threatening the home.


“Karen — even though she was the driver of this bill — she made a Republican the sponsor of it because it was a Republican Congress,” and the majority party is more likely to enact bills from its own members, said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), a friend of Bass’. “She doesn’t have to seek the limelight. What she wanted to do was to make the bill successful and that meant making a Republican the lead sponsor.”

While child welfare was perhaps her most prominent issue, Bass also spent time on criminal justice reform and foreign policy, particularly U.S.-Africa policy.

Upon election to Congress, she got a seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. When the position of top Democrat on the subcommittee that oversaw Africa policy opened in her first year, she lobbied the then-ranking Democrat, fellow Californian Howard Berman, to name her to the job. She beat out a more senior member, an unusual move for a freshman.

“She was deeply interested, it was a true priority for her and I had a sense that she would be the right person to do the job — and in a very short time, I think my decision was proven correct,” Berman said.

The topic has been the subject of fervent speculation in recent weeks.

May 27, 2022

She quickly developed relationships with African political leaders and legislators and worked on intellectual property issues with African nations, Berman said.

Bass’ congressional career will end this year regardless of whether she wins the mayor’s race. She won’t be on the ballot for the House and acknowledges that she has a “very heavy heart” about leaving Capitol Hill.


She’s hoping to pass the baton on her favored topics as well as bills she’s working on now, such as a plan to improve the lives of incarcerated women and their children.

Bass denied that she’s leaving Congress, as many of her fellow Democrats are speculated to be doing, because of the likelihood Republicans will take over the House this fall.

“If I could function in the tea party [era] and with the Freedom Caucus, I could function in whatever next year is going to bring,” she said. “It really is because of my concern about L.A. and the crisis that we’re in and the flashbacks I have to the 1990s and I don’t want to see the city repeat the mistakes of the ‘90s.”

Times staff writer Benjamin Oreskes in Los Angeles contributed to this report.