San Diego Union Tribune

November 10, 2006

As Democrats take power, let the state's musical chairs begin


WASHINGTON – As obscure and tedious as the inner workings of Congress may seem, this week's Democratic sweep of the House and Senate has set in motion a game of committee musical chairs that could have-far reaching consequences for California.

Come January, when control of Congress shifts, California Republicans will step aside as leaders of five House committees and California Democrats will take over six panels in the House and two in the Senate.

In the Senate, Barbara Boxer is positioned to become chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where she plans to promote mass transit to ease traffic congestion and technologies that reduce vehicle emissions.


Dianne Feinstein, the state's other senator, is poised to lead the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, where she plans to probe problems with electronic voting machines. Feinstein is also in line to take over the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs.

The big San Diego County loss will be Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Alpine, who will surrender the chairman's gavel on the House Armed Services Committee. But it looks like Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, may become chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, though he is expecting a challenge from Maine Rep. Mike Michaud, who has less seniority.

Both panels, and the Senate subcommittee, have important constituencies in the San Diego area.

Meanwhile, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Venice, normally would be in line to lead the House Intelligence Committee. But she's reported to be out of favor with likely House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, and that could cost her the post.

Whether the shuffles leave California a winner or a loser probably depends on the issues at stake.

Those who lead congressional committees have the power to prevent legislation from moving forward or put it on a fast track. They can hold up bills to elicit favors from other colleagues, and they have more power than most to add money or otherwise shape those bills to benefit their hometowns or states.

California will suffer from the loss of three immensely powerful House chairmanships now held by Republicans that have given the state significant clout in Congress.

Rep. Jerry Lewis of Redlands will lose his post as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, the panel that writes the government's spending bills. David Dreier of San Dimas will no longer be chairman of the House Rules Committee, which controls debate and legislation in the lower chamber. And Bill Thomas of Bakersfield won't be in charge of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy, Social Security and Medicare.

“It will definitely be a less powerful group of committee chairs in this Congress than in the last,” said Tim Ransdell, executive director of the California Institute for Federal Policy Research. “There's nothing quite like Appropriations, and the loss of that committee chair is a substantial blow for the state.”

Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, who lost his bid for re-election Tuesday, will no longer be at the helm of the House Resources Committee, which oversees the nation's public lands and waters.

But having Pelosi as leader of the House could be the great equalizer.

“Having the speaker (from California) definitely makes up for the outgoing chairmanships,” said Barbara Sinclair, a congressional expert at University of California Los Angeles.

As chairman of Armed Services, Hunter has been an advocate for Navy repair work at San Diego-area shipyards, helped secure funding for NASSCO-built Navy ships, championed missiles built by Titan Corp. and sought to protect local military bases from Defense Department closings.

But come January, when the new Congress is sworn in, Hunter's job will go to the top Democrat on the panel, Ike Skelton of Missouri. Although Hunter will be relegated to the committee's No. 2 spot, his seniority and connections are still likely to benefit the San Diego region, his spokesman said.

“One thing that will remain the same is Hunter's commitment to America's military personnel,” Joe Kasper said. “This includes ensuring San Diego County's extensive defense community is rightfully represented.”

As the potential incoming chairman of Veterans' Affairs, Filner plans to promote what he calls “a 21st Century GI Bill that updates and adds to increasingly out-of-date benefits.” He said the bill would include, among other things, better college benefits, a new focus on homeless and emotionally-scarred veterans and GI benefits for National Guard and Reserve units.

“We may have lost Armed Services, but we certainly gained something for the San Diego region with Filner,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California San Diego. “There are an enormous number of San Diego-area military veterans who depend on” the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Reps. Henry Waxman and Howard Berman – two Los Angeles-area Democrats taking over the House Government Reform and House ethics committees, respectively – will undoubtedly use their new oversight responsibilities to delve into perceived ethical lapses and what some see as questionable billing by contractors, which Republicans were faulted for neglecting.

Other California Democrats in line to take charge of House committees are George Miller of Richmond – Education and Workforce; Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson – Administration; and Tom Lantos of San Mateo – International Relations.

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