08.10.10

The Most Scandalous State

The ethics charges against Maxine Waters prove California has the worst congressional delegation in the country. Joe Mathews on how little the lousy team does for the troubled state.

The House ethics charges facing Maxine Waters for aiding a bank on whose board her husband sat have been met with a shrug here in California, and why not? Waters’ alleged misdeeds are only the latest scandal produced by the state’s members of Congress, authors of a decade-long list of embarrassment so lengthy that it begs the question:

Does California have the worst congressional delegation in the country?

It is a jarring query, for reasons of history and reputation. The Golden State, for all its civic dysfunction, has a strong good government tradition and is not as associated with dirty politics as, say, Louisiana. And the California delegation undeniably boasts some congressional giants, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, House Energy and Commerce committee chair Henry Waxman, and the leading Republican David Dreier.

Not a single one of the 53 House seats changed party hands in 2004 or 2008. The state’s Austrian-born governor has quipped that there was more turnover in the Habsburg Monarchy.

But for all the power of these California members, the state’s delegation in Washington amounts to something far less than the sum of its parts. The delegation has been unable to leverage its size—with 53 members, it is by far the largest state delegation in Congress—or the power of its leaders into anything resembling a relief package for a state with a failing economy and a nearly bankrupt government.

Instead, members have pursued narrow, district or even personal issues—the approach that has put Waters’ career in jeopardy. Her troubles are par for the course for California’s Washington contingent, who over the last decade have forged an unenviable record that no other state can match.

Consider:

California has been at the center of the most high-profile congressional scandals of recent vintage, from Modesto Democrat Gary Condit’s affair with a missing intern (which earned him a public shaming and a re-election defeat) to San Diego Republican Duke Cunningham’s bribe-taking (which earned him an eight-year prison sentence).

The scandal surrounding the lobbyist Jack Abramoff had multiple California figures at its heart, among them congressmen John Doolittle and Richard Pombo (now gone from Congress). Investigations have touched another half-dozen members.

Short of scandal, personal embarrassments abound. The East Bay’s Pete Stark made Esquire magazine’s list of the 10 worst members of Congress, for giving “bumbling, dyspeptic old fools who say stupid things a bad name.” On the same list was Southern California’s Joe Baca, who used Hispanic Caucus funds for the campaigns of his sons (Baca told the Los Angeles Times he had not participated in the decisions about steering money to them) and dismissed fellow California Rep. Loretta Sanchez as a “whore.”

Not on the list: Congresswoman Laura Richardson of Long Beach, who has defaulted on three homes in recent years, one of which was declared a public nuisance by the city of Sacramento. The House Ethics Committee recently cleared her of wrongdoing, saying she had been unable to afford the homes she owned—a legal vindication that doubled as an indictment of her judgment.

(I stop here not because there are no other examples, but because there is simply not enough time.)

What explains such behavior? California’s House delegation gets little media scrutiny, even when they’re running for office; there are simply too many members for the state’s major media organizations to keep tabs. They are also able to avoid real political competition, in part as a result of a bipartisan gerrymander in 2001 that protected incumbents of both parties. (Republicans, with the strong support of Karl Rove, went along because they wanted to make sure they didn’t lose any additional GOP seats. It worked.) Not a single one of the 53 House seats changed party hands in 2004 or 2008. The state’s Austrian-born governor has quipped that there was more turnover in the Habsburg Monarchy.

Scandal may be forgiven, and incumbency has its uses, particularly if veteran legislators deliver for their constituents. But California doesn’t get such benefits, because its representatives don’t cooperate.

Some of that is the function of personal rivalry. (Most famously, Pelosi of San Francisco doesn’t get along with the powerful Los Angeles Democrat Jane Harman.) The rest of the delegation is so divided by region and partisan affiliation that simply getting everyone to meet is a challenge. Things got so bad that in late 2003, the Annenberg Foundation Trust sponsored a bipartisan retreat in Rancho Mirage for the California congressional delegation to spark dialogue. Only 30 members showed up.

The results of this lack of cooperation are obvious. California, before the stimulus ramped up federal spending in all states, receives far less from the federal government than its citizens sent in taxes. Federal-funding formulas for various social programs tend to penalize the state for its high number of rich people, while giving California less than it needs to cover the needs of its large numbers of poor people and immigrants.  California’s congressional representatives, with the notable exception of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, have been mostly spectators as the state struggles with a persistent budget crisis and troubled prison and water systems. A cohesive delegation of 53 might be able to throw its weight around to provide broad relief for America’s largest state. But California has no such delegation.

The state’s troubles do offer a tiny bit of good news. California, having added House seats every 10 years for its entire history, has seen its rate of population growth slow and could lose a seat for the first time after the most recent census results are known. Some have rued the loss of influence from having one fewer seat. But the state may also benefit from having one less member of Congress who can get into trouble.

Joe Mathews is a journalist, an Irvine senior fellow at the New America Foundation, and a contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy and co-author of the new book, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix it.