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Californians in Congress Show They Can Ply the Same Course

October 16, 1994

J obs is the four-letter word finally bringing together the traditionally fractious California delegation in Congress. A sagging state economy and stubbornly high unemployment are prodding the politically polarized members to work together more.

California long held the unenviable reputation for having one of the least effective delegations on Capitol Hill. That improved during the 103rd Congress. The improvement is worth noting.

The nation's most populous state deserves more than it's getting from Washington. The California congressional delegation is the largest on Capitol Hill. The two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats, and 52 members of the House represent more than 10% of the Congress, and enough votes to make or break a bill on a close call. That muscle must be exercised more because of a pervasive ABC--Anywhere but California--mentality in Washington.

But the California clout is rarely flexed because the delegation's Republicans and Democrats represent what are in essence three distinct regions--North, South and Central California--as well as a coastal/inland split. They find little they can agree on. Such gaping geographical, and philosophical, differences are hard to put aside. However, many members of the delegation discovered that they could find common ground when California's economic interests were at stake.

The delegation's disunity cost California such job-generating federal projects as the National Earthquake Center, which went, incredibly, to Buffalo, N.Y.; and the $11-billion superconducting super collider, which went to Dallas. Although funding was eventually terminated for that project, it remains a prime example of how the Texas delegation traditionally works in concert to bring home the bacon.

The California delegation got a boost with the creation of the nonpartisan California Institute for Federal Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank that monitors issues of interest to California, and encourages bipartisan cooperation. The delegation, led by the deans, Reps. Don Edwards (D-San Jose) and Carlos Moorhead (R-Glendale), finally met as a bipartisan group in Washington in February, 1993 when Gov. Wilson came to the nation's capital. Clearly, the mood was changing.

Putting California first finally became an urgent priority for the entire delegation after the Northridge earthquake last Jan. 17. In what is easily the best example of bipartisan unity and teamwork, the California congressional delegation worked to get Congress to approve an $8.6-billion supplemental appropriations bill to provide desperately needed earthquake assistance.

The 54 votes provided by the California delegation wasn't the only advantage the state had in Washington during the quake crisis. The congressional delegation also boasted some of the most powerful and influential members of Congress. Californians are chairs or ranking minority members of nearly 30 key committees and subcommittees. Julian Dixon (D-L.A.), a chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, delivered. So did Jerry Lewis, of Redlands, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations subcommittee that allocates funds to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the key source of federal help in the immediate aftermath of any national disaster.

The bipartisan teamwork on earthquake relief also included plenty of cooperation among the members of Congress whose districts were hardest hit by the temblor. Veterans Anthony C. Beilenson, (D-Woodland Hills), a senior member of the House rules committee; Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), one of the best strategists in Washington; Henry A. Waxman (D-L.A.), a powerful subcommittee chair, and freshmen Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) put aside philosophical differences to help their constituents who suffered from an earthquake that respected no political boundaries.

A majority of Democrats and Republicans in the House even found some common ground on immigration, the most controversial issue in the state. A majority of the delegation supported a bill to reimburse California and other states for the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants convicted of felonies. California received $33.4 million, a down payment on the federal obligation to states impacted by high rates of illegal immigration.

Helping to mitigate the effects of defense-industry downsizing was another issue on which Democrats and Republicans could agree. Two freshmen, Reps. Steve Horn (R-Long Beach) and Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) teamed up to save the C-17, a huge cargo plane used to transport troops and tanks. During their successful effort, they managed to get conservative Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove) and liberal Maxine Waters (D-L.A.) on the same side of the issue.

When the 104th Congress comes to Washington in January, the California delegation may have a friend in the White House in Leon Panetta, President Clinton's chief of staff, who once represented Monterey County. Panetta can't bend over backward to help his home state, but he does provide priceless access to the White House. Access alone, however, won't mean much unless all Californians in Congress work together more consistently.

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