California is on the verge of a major political opportunity – if only the state can seize it. With Kevin McCarthy’s election to Majority Leader of the House of Representatives, California now has both the majority and minority caucus leaders in the House of Representatives coming from the same state: McCarthy from Bakersfield in the Central Valley and San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi. If the two leaders can actually work together on California issues, there is a huge opportunity for the state to see a reversal in the proportionate decline of Federal money going to it since the early 1990s. California used to be slightly more than even in the dollars sent to the Federal government and those that came back to it. Today, it recoups only 81 cents back for every dollar sent to D.C.
One sign of just how fractured California has been: during the most recent primary, three different northern California counties voted on whether it made sense to secede and form a separate state called “Jefferson.” This is not the first time people have discussed breaking up the nation’s most populous state, nor will it be the last. California is not only incredibly diverse geographically but economically as well. As the Milken Institute report “Mind the Gaps” pinpointed, the variations between the richest and poorest California counties in per capita GDP and educational attainment are far larger than between the richest and poorest American states. One of the key issues that exacerbates this regional distortion is the relative lack of available investment from the Federal government. California is one of the largest “donor states” in the nation, paying to Washington far more than it receives. And when California does attract large shares of Federal money, the dollars tend to be funneled into existing facilities such as the coastal research universities, the two national labs in the Bay Area, the remaining military and defense facilities, and of course NASA.
What happened to California’s congressional delegation and its pull in Washington? Ironically, one of the main problems has been that the state has become politically non-competitive. While California voted Republican in the 1970s and 1980s at the Presidential level, it was highly competitive locally. However, by the late 1980s, the state’s Congressional delegation had fractured into districts that were reliably either Republican or Democratic, and the state’s Senate delegation became significantly reduced in its overall impact. One seat turned over every six years, and the other, held by senior Democrat Alan Cranston, was handicapped by perceived connections to the savings and loan collapse. California suffered severely not only in terms of defense cutbacks and realignments, but also in terms of attracting significant funding for infrastructure. The fact that Rep. Henry Waxman actually blocked funding to extend the Los Angeles Subway for 20 years only worsened the situation. Politicians concerned about seniority in the House saw a diminished need to promote their own state, and the seniority of California’s Senate delegation was swept away.
So what now? Now, for the first time in ages, there is an opportunity to push key items that affect all Californians, such as infrastructure, exports, and yes, even immigration. There are already signs of cooperation on action to deal with the current extreme drought. All California politicians should realize that the benefits of helping the state cross party lines. And that in a state with an open primary, politicians can understand that actively campaigning both for their local constituencies and the state as a whole can pay dividends far larger than being parochial and divisive – both with statewide interest groups and with voters. In the long run, both California and its politicians will benefit from the change.