As Democrats take power, let the state's musical chairs
By Dana Wilkie COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
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
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
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
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
“Having the speaker (from California) definitely makes
up for the outgoing chairmanships,” said Barbara Sinclair,
a congressional expert at University of California Los
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
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
“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 –