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California loses nearly 300 years of Congressional seniority with retirements, defeats



Retiring Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis (right) has served in the House since 1979.
Retiring Republican Congressman Jerry Lewis (right) has served in the House since 1979.
RepJerryLewis/Flickr.com

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You might call it musical chairs, that time in the political calendar when members of Congress make their move up the leadership ladder. But the turnover of more than a dozen California seats in the House means going to the back of the seniority line.

In some ways, nothing’s changed for California. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer still chair key Senate committees. But the real power shift is in the House, where citizen-drawn district lines led to competitive races. California lost 14 incumbents and with them, astoundingly, nearly 300 years of service on the Hill.

Norm Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says losing seniority means losing members in strong leadership positions, "often chairmanships or ranking positions in committees that matter." He says, normally, you'd see some reduction in the clout of a state. "But in a state like California, which has more members than anybody else, which is going to get members on every single panel so that they can effectively argue the case, it’s not as dramatic as it might sound."

California can still claim both the House Majority Whip, Kevin McCarthy, and the Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi. Buck McKeon of Santa Clarita still chairs the House Armed Services Committee; Darrell Issa of Temecula heads Oversight and Government Reform. 

But longtime L.A. Congressman Howard Berman won’t be returning in January as the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ornstein says Berman is an opinion leader who has an influence on policy that goes beyond where he comes from.

"Howard is universally respected," Ornstein says, "widely seen as a tremendous influence and providing some bipartisan glue in many areas of foreign policy."

Marc Sandelow, political science professor at the University of California’s D.C. Center, says Congress also loses important institutional memory. He cites the election loss of Bay Area Democrat Pete Stark, who knows more about Medicare than just about anybody else on the Hill.

"He’s been around since Tommy John pitched for the Dodgers," Sandelow notes. "This guy has 40 years of Congressional experience. He’s walking away from that now, being replaced by a guy who’s never worked on Capitol Hill."

Sandelow says losing experienced Democrats is one thing, but the most important thing for California is who controls the House. And the House belongs to the GOP.

California’s Republican delegation has gone from 19 to 15 members, thanks to redistricting and a shrinking California Republican Party. Even before the election, three Democrats and four longtime California Republicans in the House announced they were stepping down for reasons ranging from wanting to spend more time with grandchildren to a desire to go on a Mormon mission.

The departures include Republican David Dreier of San Dimas, who came to Washington the same year as Ronald Reagan. As head of the powerful House Rules Committee, Dreier was the genial traffic cop who decided which amendments would get a floor vote.

Also retiring is the state’s longest serving member, Republican Jerry Lewis of Redlands, who first came to Capitol Hill in 1978. Lewis says he's been in Washington "long enough." He insists redistricting wasn’t the reason for his decision to retire: "Fortunately, in the territory that I’m in, where I’ve often said that the Democrats are more conservative than me, I have not had a difficulty with reapportionment."

Democrat Xavier Becerra says Lewis — who once chaired the powerful House Appropriations Committee — was able to direct federal dollars to build highways, fund NASA projects, expand airline terminals, and build flood control canals in southern California. "Much of the infrastructure in California we owe to people like Jerry Lewis," Becerra says. "Lewis can say he helped build America."

Infrastructure remains one of the areas where individual members can still steer federal dollars to their home state. But Jack Pitney, political science professor at Claremont McKenna College says most federal dollars are doled out according to formulas not subject to the influence of individual members. And those formulas don’t favor the Golden State. 

"California is a relatively young state," says Pitney, "so we don’t have as high a proportion of people on Social Security as say, West Virginia." And because we’re a relatively affluent state, he adds, "we don’t get quite the same amount of benefits in means-tested entitlements as we would if we were a poorer state."

California is important to Republican party leadership. And UC’s Sandelow says that can help: "John Boehner’s gotta look out on the House of Representatives now and know that he needs to win competitive California seats to stay as Speaker. So when he starts figuring out who’s gonna author bills, who needs to show off to constituents at home, it  may well be that California is able to get a little more than it used to."

This week, California's remaining Republican incumbents have been jousting for leadership positions. Republican Ed Royce of Brea was just named the new Chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee. But Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach lost his bid to chair the House Science Committee.

RETIRING MEMBERS

Dennis Cardoza – (D, Modesto):

David Dreier – (R, San Dimas):

Bob Filner – (D, Chula Vista):

Elton Gallegly  (R, Simi Valley):

Jerry Lewis (R, Redlands):

Lynn Woolsey (D, Petaluma):

MEMBERS WHO WERE DEFEATED: 

Joe Baca – (D, San Bernardino):

Howard Berman – (D, Sherman Oaks):

Brian Bilbray – (R, San Diego):

Mary Bono Mack  - (R, Palm Springs):

Dan Lungren (R, Sacramento):

Laura Richardson (D, Long Beach)

Pete Stark – (D, Fremont):

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the area Buck McKeon, of Santa Clarita, represents.

Update: Mary Bono Mack is joining board of anti-drug organization