WASHINGTON — The departure of two Central Valley lawmakers from a key House committee demonstrates the Democrats' diminished stature in the 112th Congress.
When Democrats were in charge, Reps. Doris Matsui of Sacramento and Dennis Cardoza of Atwater served party leadership on the quietly powerful House Rules Committee. Now, with Republicans ascendant, both have left the panel that is peculiarly influential in how Congress operates.
"Every piece of legislation that goes to the House floor first goes to the rules committee," Matsui's official website noted as late as Thursday morning, adding that her membership gave her "a unique opportunity to be involved with every piece of legislation from start to finish."
Cardoza, for instance, used his committee position last year to help fend off proposals to consider a massive health care bill under a controversial fast-track procedure. The committee decides how long debates last and what amendments can be offered.
But when the rules panel convened midmorning Thursday for its first big meeting of the 112th Congress, neither Matsui nor Cardoza was present.
Cardoza had already told House leaders after the November election that he wanted off the Rules Committee, part of the distancing from leadership that also prompted his vote Wednesday against Nancy Pelosi as House speaker.
"I did not get the (leadership) support I felt I deserved on the Valley's housing crisis or the water crisis," Cardoza explained.
Matsui cast her decision in a different light. She remains a Pelosi supporter, and she had the seniority to remain a rules member if she wanted. However, she indicated she wanted to focus on the wide-ranging House Energy and Commerce Committee, where she can handle Sacramento-centric issues from hospital care to clean technology.
"It was an interesting place to be, and I learned a lot," Matsui said Thursday of her Rules Committee experience, but "with the Energy and Commerce Committee you're talking about policy, while on the Rules Committee you're dealing with process."
Matsui acknowledged that she also knows the frustrations of being a minority member on the Rules Committee. These can be never ending.
With only 13 members, the Rules Committee is far smaller than all but one other House panel. Membership gives lawmakers opportunities to collect chits from the leaders who appoint them and their colleagues who need them.
Majority members also enjoy a nine-to-four committee advantage. They are leadership loyalists by definition — it's the price of committee membership — and are guaranteed of winning every vote.
Conversely, minority members don't stand a chance. Typically, their only role is to voice objections about not being able to offer amendments. Then, they get voted down; frequently, at uncomfortable hours of the day or night.
"I know that this is all inside baseball," Rep. David Dreier, R-San Dimas, complained during one typical House rules debate last year, "but the fact of the matter is it comes to down to the effort being made by the majority ... to shut out members."
Now, though, Dreier has reclaimed the Rules Committee chairmanship. As a gesture toward openness, the committee's hearings will now be broadcast over the Internet. Nonetheless, Dreier on Thursday started crafting a legislative rule that Democrats fear will limit their ability to offer amendments to a symbolically charged Republican bill repealing last year's health care law.
Put another way: The tables are now turned on a highly partisan committee where Central Valley representation has gone from significant to zero with the turn of an election.