California will see clout increase at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue

WASHINGTON — California will regain some of its political mojo next year, on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

On Capitol Hill, California lawmakers will chair the committees that manage health, education, energy and more. One California senator will oversee the nation's spies. The other will write global warming legislation. A willful San Franciscan will run the House of Representatives.

Sixteen blocks away, the White House and its executive branch environs will be equally well-populated by Californians. Two cabinet secretaries and multiple key economic, environmental and legislative advisers bring years of California experience.

Simply by the numbers, California's renewed stature seems undeniable. The numbers and titles, though, don't tell the whole story. Clout, it turns out, is complicated.

"It brings a California sensibility to Washington, but that doesn't necessarily translate into pork or the other, standard measures of power," noted Marc Sandalow, director of the University of California at Merced's Washington program.

California's increased visibility can be measured in small ways.

When Barack Obama is sworn in as president on Jan. 20, the San Francisco Boys Chorus and the San Francisco Girls Chorus will be part of the official entertainment. It's no coincidence that California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein is the chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is responsible for putting together the program for the 56th presidential inauguration.

She'll lead the nation's 44th president to his front-row seat on the inaugural platform and will sit next to him, then serve as emcee for the inauguration. Later, she'll head inside the Capitol for a private luncheon at Statuary Hall, where she'll offer a toast to the new president and vice president -- with California wine.

California clout can be measured in more substantive ways, as well. Or, at least, it can be estimated.

"It's hard to define what is in California's overall interest," Sandalow noted.

The state, after all, has widely diverse political constituencies that rarely share common ground. Sandalow observed that California is home to ultra-liberals like Oakland Democrat Barbara Lee, ultra-conservatives like Orange County Republican John Campbell and quintessential centrists like Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced.

Still, the Capitol Hill leadership lineup is impressive.

Two California liberals will be leading the fight against global warming, which Obama is promising to make one of his top priorities.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer is the head of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue. And in the House, Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles will lead the debate after dethroning Michigan Rep. John Dingell as head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Both are also backing California's request for a federal waiver that would allow the state to impose stronger regulations on emissions.

Boxer and Waxman will find likely allies in Nancy Sutley, the deputy mayor of Los Angeles who will become chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, and Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize-winning Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory director who will become secretary of energy.

As head of the Senate's public works committee, Boxer will also have a big say in how transportation dollars get spent. She's making it clear she wants a big chunk of Obama's economic stimulus package to go to California to fix its roads and create jobs at the same time.

"Things are not good, but change is coming," Boxer said last week. "I am going to focus like a laser beam on saving and creating jobs, which is the backbone of any economy."

California's most powerful player will be Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, who's positioned to have more clout than any other House speaker since 1994, when Republicans won a majority under Newt Gingrich.

Even some California Republicans find themselves holding power or moving up. The senior member of the House Appropriations Committee is Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands.

Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, named last week by Roll Call as the House's rookie of the year, will be the GOP's chief deputy whip, rising to the No. 3 position. He'll get an office in the Capitol and will attend daily leadership meetings.

Nor does California's clout confine itself to elected and appointed officials. Californians contributed $67 million to Obama's presidential campaign, records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show. This was three times more than Californians contributed to Republican candidate John McCain.

Obama's very top campaign bundler, the man who collected more than any other supporter, was Hollywood movie executive Jeffrey Katzenberg. Katzenberg was responsible for nearly half a million dollars in contributions, while fellow Hollywood mogul David Geffen helped bundle an additional $110,200. At the very least, their phone calls will be returned.

It's dangerously easy to overstate how much clout any one individual might have, particularly when the individual is charismatic. When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger took office in November 2003, for instance, he trumpeted his intention to become the "Collectinator" of federal funds.

"We are not asking the White House, and we are not asking the federal government or anyone in Washington to bail us out," Schwarzenegger declared last year. "We are not asking to go and get a handout. We just want our fair share."

At best, though, Schwarzenegger had mixed results. For instance, he was never able to convince the Bush administration to boost funding for a program reimbursing California for imprisoning criminal aliens. Congress has increased funding, but the credit for this is spread pretty far and wide.

Titles, moreover, do not necessarily convey real authority. That must be earned, sometimes in brutal bureaucratic infighting.

University of California at Berkeley economist Christina Romer, for instance, has been tapped to chair Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. Romer is highly respected as a scholar, but in the White House her voice could easily be trumped by National Economic Council chair Lawrence Summer, a former Harvard president and one-time treasury secretary.

Even cabinet secretaries can be put on a short leash, depending on White House inclinations. Modesto native Ann Veneman served a term as President Bush's first agriculture secretary, and she frequently hosted visiting California farm groups. But when it came time to write a 2004 farm bill, the White House seemed to turn more to its own internal adviser, Capitol Hill veteran Chuck Conner.