The San Diego Union Tribune

Old-fashioned seniority strengthens California’s standing in Washington

by Tim Ransdell, Op-Ed Page, San Diego Union-Tribune, January 29, 2003

Earlier this month, California sent its battalion to the Washington front. For the next two years, 53 of the state’s finest will vie for our fair share of federal money and policy attention. To account for this, our Congressional troops – Democrat and Republican – should give a salute of thanks to last year’s Legislature and Governor for arming them with Congress’ most powerful weapon: seniority.

More than a year ago, State leaders drew district lines to ensure that all 53 California Congressional seats will be largely uncontested in any general election for a decade. Yes, it was an incumbent protection plan. Anti-democracy. Hostile to competition. Whatever the downsides of the redistricting, there is one very clear upside for California: The strong get stronger.

In Congress, power is measured in years of service. Old trumps new. Intellect, savoir-faire, and a network of benefactors serve a newcomer well, but there remains no substitute for old fashioned seniority.

New members have already had their first lesson. The longest-standing legislator has first dibs on office space, then the next, and so on. Eventually, the dregs go to the freshmen, with the least lucky among them (including the Central Valley’s Dennis Cardoza this year) relegated to the House’s nosebleed section: reclaimed storage cages on the top floor of the Cannon Building that are only accessible via former freight elevators and dingy stairways.

Seniority’s policy power comes in committees, where the seasoned are in the inner circle, and where the chair’s gavel normally awaits the panel’s most venerable member.

Freshman members of Congress decry the system as staid and as hostile to fresh ideas, but it is time-tested. As goes the old saw, at first, the seniority system seems unfair, but after a while it grows on you.

California has a leg up in the seniority system for the next decade. In 2001, with control of the Governor’s Mansion and a majority of the State Legislature, California Democratic mappers could have carved more House seats for the party. But with California now not a one-party Democratic state but what Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California calls "The Un-Party State" – ruled by individual preferences of independently minded voters – Democrats compromised with their Republican colleagues and settled for a gain of only one Democratic House slot.

With 50 Congressional incumbents appearing on November’s California ballot, voters reelected all 50. Every Congressional district is essentially locked up for one party or the other, and California will most likely send 33 Democrats and 20 Republicans to Washington until 2013.

As a result, the California Congressional delegation will be simultaneously more cooperative and more powerful.

Maintaining the status quo dodges the divisiveness that could have stemmed from a partisan power grab. Twenty years ago, a Democrat-dominated redistricting shifted California’s House membership overnight from an even partisan split to a lopsided Democrat majority, and a decade of bitter intrastate feuds and Congressional losses ensued. A less partisan remap ten years later ushered in a decade of bipartisan cooperation, led first by Reps. Jerry Lewis of Redlands and Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles, and later Sam Farr of Carmel and David Dreier of Glendora.

After redistricting, those four members gained in seniority – Dreier chairs the pivotal Rules Committee and the other three gained ground on the cash-doling Appropriations Committee.

California’s growing seniority has allowed the state to capture an unprecedented five full committee chairmanships in the new Congress. In the top elite as committee chairs, Dreier and tax-writing Ways and Means Committee Chair Bill Thomas have been joined by San Diegan Duncan Hunter who takes command of the Armed Services Committee. Chairing the Resources Committee – with authority over water, environment, energy, and lands matters – is Richard Pombo. The new Homeland Security panel is being led by Christopher Cox, who will also keep his party post as the fifth ranking Republican in the House.

On the other side of the aisle, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi has become the House’s number one Democrat, with Bob Matsui of Sacramento as the top party fund-raiser. Influence is rising too for every other returning Californian.

Turning out seasoned Congressmembers can undermine state power. Rep. Gary Condit, defeated in the primary, was a key player on agriculture policy, and Long Beach Republican Steve Horn – forced into retirement by redistricting – would have been our standard-bearer in this year’s epic battle for billions of highway and transit dollars.

Still, the rest of the nation more freely fired their politicians in November. California, more than 12 percent of the House, accounted for less than 4 percent of House turnover. More senior members mean more clout in jousts over taxation, social policy, and federal money for defense, education, transportation, and health.

Like them or not, safer seats – and the seniority that accompanies them – generously stock California’s arsenal for another decade’s worth of interstate combat.


Ransdell is executive director of the California Institute, a bipartisan, Washington-based nonprofit that advises the members of the state’s Congressional delegation.

Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co. Used by permission.

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