David Dreier to leave Congress: Is California losing its clout?

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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
In this 2011 file photo, Rep. David Dreier (R) of California takes part in a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. The longtime California representative announced he will not seek another term Wednesday.

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.

“Both parties in the House limit the terms of committee chairs and ranking minority members, forcing rotation,” Johannes says. “Thus holding positions of power is less stable today than ever, and probably less meaningful. Sooner or later, California was bound to lose some influence associated with holding key positions.”

Still there are those that hold that Dreier, in particular, will be missed for what he could bring directly to the state.

“David Dreier was particularly effective in getting emergency help following the extreme rains and mudslides of 2005,” says Jack Pitney, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. But he says more important than any specific project is Dreier’s operating style. 

“He is a genuine believer in deliberative democracy, who has been willing to criticize his own party leadership for shortchanging substantive policy debate,” says Professor Pitney. He spotlights a Dreier quote used by Elizabeth Drew in her 1996 book about the GOP takeover of Congress: “The thing that has troubled me about the whole Hundred Days concept is that we’re trying to do too much too quickly. We’re going against the Founding Fathers. They wanted us to be deliberative,” said Dreier.

Others are glad to see him go.

“If you do the math, California is not getting its fair share of federal funds now,” says Barbara O’Connor, director emeritus of the Institute for Study of Politics and Media at California State University, Sacramento. Ticking off a list of appropriations – for TARP, high-speed rail, water projects, unemployment – Professor O’Connor says “the real question is what have they brought us. The whole point of redistricting was to change how bad it is and this is working.”

Kyle Kondik, house editor at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, points out that California still has plenty of strong names that can do the heavy lifting: Nancy Pelosi, Henry Waxman, Daryl Issa, Kevin McCarthy, Dana Rohrabacher, George Miller, and Dan Lungren.

“If the goal is to bring back money for your district, all these guys are high on the food chain and know how to take care of their own,” Professor Kondik says. “And of course, a lot depends on exactly who the new guys are and how they learn to work together.”

On this point, Johannes says historical context is important, as is the natural ebb and flow of political power over time. For instance, he mentions the 1946 congressional elections, when “safe, conservative Southern Democrats" survived but northern liberals lost.

“That meant, given the general electoral safety in the South, that southerners rather quickly moved up the seniority ladder to become chairs of a disproportionate number of … committees. They dominated committees into the seventies. Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, once had powerful House and Senate delegations, but they departed, via retirement mostly, costing those states influence. The same is true for a number of states over the past 50 or 70 years. It’s inevitable.”

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