David Dreier to Leave Congress: Is California Losing Its Clout?

Article excerpt

Some worry that David Dreier's retirement means reduced clout for California on Capitol Hill. But others say an anti-pork atmosphere in Washington means their concerns are overblown.

Republican David Dreier, chairman of the House Rules Committee, added his name Tuesday to the list of veteran California lawmakers who are retiring from Congress, causing some in California to fret about the state's lost clout on Capitol Hill.

But others, pointing to changes in Congress and a spirited anti- pork atmosphere pervading Washington, say those concerns are overblown.

Congressman Dreier, the most powerful of the six California representatives who are retiring, cited the historically low public approval rating for Congress as among the reasons he would not seek reelection.

Another reason that Dreier and others have decided not to run is that, as a result of California's recent redistricting, they were facing new or different constituencies or new opponents. His home was placed in a majority Hispanic district where President Obama defeated John McCain in the last presidential race.

"Seniority is almost everything on Capitol Hill, and because of redistricting and retirements, California could lose well over 200 years of incumbents' experience in the House," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a political scientist at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California, in an e-mail.

With twice the seniority of any other state, California has the most to lose, some say. Moreover, California voters' recent decision to put redistricting in the hands of a citizen's commission - instead of leaving it up to state legislators themselves - puts the state at a political disadvantage, they add. While other legislators in other states still take politics into account in redistricting, California's citizen's commission does not.

But the other side of the argument is that the workings of Congress have changed so much that these losses don't mean what they might have in the past.

"Given the combination of extremely tight budgets, the ban on traditional earmarks, and the popular and press focus on 'waste and pork,' no one holding a committee or subcommittee chair today can steer as much federal largess as in the past to his or her district and state," says Jack Johannes, professor of political science at Villanova University in an e-mail. "They still can and will, but it's a lot harder now than ever. That diminishes the effect of losing key congressmen who hold high ranking committee positions."

Other Calilfornia members of the House of Representatives that have decided not to return to Congress are Jerry Lewis (first elected in 1979), Elton Gallegly and Wally Herger (both in 1987) Lynn Woolsey and Bob Filner (1993), and Dennis Cardoza (2003).

Professor Johannes says that committee and some subcommittee chairs - the traditional source of power - no longer are based on seniority in the House, a tradition that was broken in the 1970s and crushed by Newt Gingrich in 1995. He says both parties since then have regularly skipped seniority to reward party loyalty, ideological purity, and fundraising ability in appointing chairs. …