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Too Many Californians at Helms of Committees?

The state is represented in the top job of five House panels already, which could keep Rep. Jerry Lewis out of the Appropriations post.

June 12, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In his 26 years in the House, Jerry Lewis has put together an impressive resume: chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense; onetime No. 3 in the House Republican leadership; former head of his state's Republican delegation; a major Republican fundraiser; the man who saved former House Speaker Jim Wright from drowning.

Now, as Lewis seeks one of Congress' most coveted jobs -- chairman of the House Appropriations Committee -- his biggest and perhaps only liability is his home address. He's from California.

Californians already hold five House committee chairmanships out of 21, more than any other state. The ABC syndrome (Anybody But California) has emerged in the battle for the Appropriations Committee.

The committee, along with its Senate counterpart, is ground zero for every major funding decision in Congress, and its chairman's ability to deliver largess is legendary. It is no coincidence that the roads in West Virginia, home of former Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, are as smooth as glass. Or that Alaska, home of the current chairman, Ted Stevens, a Republican, receives more dollars for projects per capita than any other state.

The silver-haired Lewis, who still occasionally gets mail intended for comedian Jerry Lewis, has demonstrated the kind of clout that comes with an important position on the Appropriations Committee, and a look around his Inland Empire district shows just how powerful he has been. The Redlands Republican has delivered the funds for the Lewis Center for Educational Research, the Jerry Lewis Swim Center, the Jerry Lewis Community Center, the Jerry Lewis Reception Room at Loma Linda University Medical Center and the soon-to-be-built Lewis Hall at the University of Redlands.

"He is just everybody's good uncle," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach).

Although the chairmanship won't be decided until after the November elections, the candidates have already begun campaigning for the job. If, as expected, Republicans hold onto their majority in the House, GOP leaders will meet privately later this year or early next year to decide on a new chairman. The decision must be approved by all House Republicans.

The most senior candidate is Ralph Regula of Ohio. A 32-year House veteran who turns 80 in December, Regula is more senior than Lewis, 69, with his 26 years of service, and Harold Rogers of Kentucky (66 and 24).

But seniority is no longer the only factor in selecting chairmen. Personality, party loyalty and campaign fundraising count too.

Although Regula has raised nearly $1 million to help Republican candidates, Lewis' supporters portray him as a Johnny-come-lately fundraiser.

Lewis recently was chairman of a fundraiser that brought in $7 million for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Jerry' s been a team player, not just this last couple of years," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Riverside), a Lewis supporter.

Many lawmakers from other states think California already receives more than its fair share from Washington, a view that state officials hotly dispute. And the state's heavy Democratic tilt doesn't help its standing in the GOP-controlled Congress.

But Calvert, who serves on the House Republican Steering Committee, which will make the recommendation on the next chairman, said the rule that limits today's House chairmen to three two-year terms will soon take its toll on most of the five committee chairmen from California. "All of these chairmanships that we have now, we won't have in a very short number of years," he said.

John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, said he believed Lewis could overcome any regional rivalry.

"Jerry is a committee guy," Pitney said. "Everybody knows that he lives and breathes appropriations.... Colleagues see him as a loyalist to the committee and its work, not as an advocate of parochial interests."

His supporters say that, as chairman of the defense subcommittee, Lewis has delivered the biggest spending bill with minimum partisan acrimony. Loren B. Thompson, a defense analyst for the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think tank, said Lewis combined bipartisan cooperation with a willingness to challenge Pentagon priorities.

"Of all the committees that Pentagon policymakers must confront in winning annual approval for its funding request, Lewis' body is the one that has most frequently begged to differ," Thompson said. Lewis, he added, "never loses sight of the need to build coalitions and compromise, so whatever his subcommittee decides behind closed doors tends to stick -- not only with the full committee, but also with the full House."

Lewis said at a recent meeting, "This subcommittee does not know a partisan line, and we go out of our way to try to avoid some of the pure politics of this place."

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