House Keeping

Why California hangs in the balance of the midterm election


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For most of the 20th century, California had virtually no role in congressional leadership. The all-powerful committee chairs were from the South, the rust belt, and the northeast. Even though California was fast-growing and a substantial contributor to the nation’s power, the “pork” and federal attention disproportionately found its way to states such as Arkansas, West Virginia, Mississippi, Texas, and Massachusetts because that’s where the committee chairs and speakers were from. Nancy Pelosi made history not only as the first woman to ascend to the high office of Speaker, but as the first Californian.

Obviously, if the Democrats lose control of Congress next month, Madame Speaker will become Madame Spoken. But so much more is at stake. Four California members of the House of Representatives chair some of the most powerful of that body’s committees. Two of the most powerful are from Los Angeles, the first time L.A. and not just San Francisco has had that kind of influence. They’d all be gone.

In the Bay Area, liberal stalwart George Miller chairs the Committee on Labor and Education, a key post for the most important Obama administration priorities on the agenda, with education reform especially important to California. Much more is ahead, but his bill providing $10 billion in new federal education funding is estimated to save or create almost 17,000 jobs for teachers in California alone. Our state budget is already in tatters; without Miller, we’d have to lay off even more teachers.

In San Diego, history of science professor and conscience of the left Bob Filner, has been leading the Veteran’s Affairs Committee through perhaps the most important test since World War II of Abraham Lincoln’s imprecation “to care for him who shall have borne the battle.” Hundreds of thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans are returning to the United States, and many of them to California, with almost unimaginable wounds—physical and mental. Los Angeles has one of the largest VA complexes in the country; Filner’s term as committee chair has seen the VA budget grow by 60 percentfar more than under the Republicans who started the wars.

The San Fernando Valley’s Howard Berman, whose name is synonymous with political power in our state, chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Berman’s combination of real politik and global vision is crucial to Obama’s—and therefore the country’s—success in this messy new world disorder. His leadership in lifting the travel ban to Cuba and sanctioning Iraq are in sync with L.A. But most important to our local economy, Berman champions legislation to prevent “runaway” filmmaking. Can you imagine Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who would be the Republican chair, caring for a second about L.A.’s economy?

And then there’s Henry Waxman of Beverly Hills. Waxman chairs perhaps the most powerful committee in the House: Energy and Commerce. From his perch atop that banal-sounding committee, Waxman guides healthcare, environmental, energy, and certain financial reform policy. Waxman is nearly unique in Congress: He is a policy wonk who knows how to legislate. He has little time for politics, but without him in that post, huge swaths of the Democratic agenda would likely run aground. For Los Angeles, whether it’s Red Line funding (finally) or pushing for universal healthcare, Waxman is irreplaceable.

And all of these leaders, including the Speaker, unequivocally support equal rights legislation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. As slow as progress is on that front, it would simply die if the likes of Republican David Dreier of San Dimas returns to power.

The Speaker. The chairs of four key committees. Our committee chairs not only represent us on the national stage, but they assure that our state and communities receive all they should from the federal government. Even now California still only receives about 78 cents in federal investment for every dollar we export to Washington. We can’t afford to lose any clout.

Democrats take it all for granted. California, after all, trends blue. If that “enthusiasm gap” people like to talk about translates into a vote gap that gives the Republicans a majority in the House, California has perhaps the most to lose. This nation-state of 36 million people could forget about help from Washington.

Worse, would some of our chairs, who have achieved seniority because they have been in office a long time, decide that life is too short to serve in the minority? When David Dreier chaired the agenda-setting House Rules Committee, he excluded Democrats completely. Morale among Democrats was low. Would Henry Waxman throw in the towel rather than face that fate? Some of our best talent could easily disappear and with it, prospects for vigorous representation of our state at the federal level when we do have the majority.

A loss of the House could shake the nation, but it could devastate California.


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