Looming retirements, especially of the Inland area’s Rep. Jerry Lewis, could leave the region without political heft for years

BY BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON BUREAU
bgoad@pe.com

Published: 22 January 2012 08:39 PM

WASHINGTON — When Inland Rep. Jerry Lewis leaves office at the end of the year, he’ll take with him one attribute that none of his potential successors can promise to replicate: seniority.

With 33 years in Congress under his belt, Lewis, R-Redlands, is the longest-serving California House Republican in the institution’s history. And while his unparalleled acumen in steering funds to the region has been blunted by a ban on congressional earmarks, Lewis’ remains an influential member of the committee that controls federal spending.

Reps. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks, and Wally Herger, R-Chico, who have served 13 terms apiece, also are stepping down. If 16-term Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, joins them in retirement, as has been widely rumored, California’s House delegation will lose almost a century — 98 years — of combined experience in an institution where seniority often equals power.

On the Democratic side, 10-term Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, and five-term Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Atwater, are retiring and 10-term Rep. Bob Filner, D-San Diego, is quitting to run for mayor there.

The departures likely will lessen the clout that the Inland area and California wield in Washington, experts and lawmakers said.

“There’s always a potential problem when you lose that much seniority,” said Jack Pitney, a Claremont McKenna College politics professor who served on Lewis’ staff in the 1980s.

Congress always has given great weight to seniority. The chairmanships of the committees that oversee each sector of the federal government almost always go to the longest-serving member who hails from the majority party, while the most senior member of the minority party usually becomes the “ranking member.”

Chairmen and ranking members control the hiring and firing of staffers that help shape legislation. They also decide the make-up of subcommittees that fall within the full committee’s jurisdiction. Chairmen set the committee’s agendas, deciding which issues to take up, what hearings to hold and which bills their panel will consider.

When a committee approves a bill and sends it to the House floor, it is the chairmen and ranking members who decide who may debate its passage and for how many minutes they may speak.

POSITIONS OF POWER

Lewis’ influence as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee has been well documented.

As a chairman of multiple subcommittees and, for six years, the panel’s top Republican, Lewis had a hand in each of the 13 bills that control spending on federal programs. From that position, he used earmarks — spending directives lawmakers slip into the spending bills — to guide hundreds of millions of dollars to projects in and around Inland Southern California.

Lewis often came under fire for the largesse he steered to the region. But he argued that it was his obligation to look out for a state that sends more money to Washington in taxes than it gets back in federal funding, and to ensure that that funding doesn’t all get swallowed up by powerful interests in Los Angeles and the Bay Area.

Upon regaining control of the House last year, Republicans imposed a moratorium on earmarking. They also took his mantle as top Republican appropriator, citing a term-limit rule. Still, as “chairman emeritus,” Lewis remains second-in-command on five of the panel’s subcommittees and remains heavily involved with committee business.

The halt of earmarks clearly diminishes his ability to direct money to specific projects in his home district. But he continues to influence spending decisions.

That was apparent last year when he, with help from Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, persuaded his colleagues to reinstate more than $200 million in funding that was stripped from the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program. Popular among many California officials, the program gives partial reimbursements to states for the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants. Lewis is also a vocal advocate for funding for medical research and flood control projects, two areas in which the Inland area has traditionally sought and received federal dollars.

With Lewis gone, California’s voice on such issues will be softened.

To read entire story, click here.