California waits on Congress for action or – more than likely – inaction

A drought-fighting bill favored by Central Valley farmers and feared by environmentalists and some Northern California lawmakers remains under negotiation. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
A drought-fighting bill favored by Central Valley farmers and feared by environmentalists and some Northern California lawmakers remains under negotiation. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times/MCT) MCT

Congress is returning to plenty of unfinished California business. Then, it will soon depart again, leaving most of the Golden State goals still unmet.

One California lawmaker hoped this 113th Congress would authorize grants for an Altamont Pass rail project. Some sought to add six new federal judges to serve busy Central Valley courts. Others wanted the San Joaquin Delta declared a “national heritage area.”

But with little time remaining before they resume full-time campaigning, lawmakers coming back Monday know most home-state bills are dying on the vine. Some attrition is typical: bills are always easier to write than to pass. Some failures, though, reflect a particularly toxic Congress.

“Unfortunately, with so many challenges facing our country, this Congress has been dismal,” Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Calif., said Friday. “It has been one of the least productive Congresses in history. It is disappointing and frustrating.”

Between Jan. 3 and July 31 of this year, 3,012 measures were introduced in the House or Senate. Seventy bills were enacted into law.

Many that succeeded are very modest, like the law renaming a Southern California flight test center after astronaut Neil Armstrong, and the law renaming a Dublin, Calif., post office after a local civic activist.

Others cover a tad more territory, like one authored by Rep. Tom McClintock, D-Calif., to transfer 40.8 acres in El Dorado County to the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.

But big bills, like a comprehensive immigration package buried by House Republican leaders, have not fared well this Congress. Neither have the annual appropriations bills that will keep the government running starting Oct. 1. None of these 12 necessary bills are finished.

“It’s a problem, because of the lack of bipartisanship,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., said Friday. “In the House, it’s been all about the passing of bills that have a political message.”

The unfinished appropriations bills cover more than just dollars and cents.

House conservatives, for instance, inserted language into the Interior Department funding bill to block a plan to preserve land through conservation easements in the Sierra Nevada and Diablo Range foothills. The future of this proposed California Foothills Legacy Area now turns on what Congress can, or cannot, do with what is supposed to be routine, must-pass legislation.

“It’s been as productive as it can be, under the circumstances,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said of the 113th Congress. “People have voted for divided government, and that’s what they get.”

Nunes, like other Republicans, largely blames Senate Democrats and the White House for legislative gridlock. Other Republicans have underscored the point with a Twitter hashtag that organizes quick online statements under #StuckintheSenate.

At the same time, Nunes stressed that simply counting bills is a poor measure of congressional success.

“We should not be passing more bills,” Nunes said. “We should be fixing the laws we have.”

Several bills with strong California hooks have passed, and several more might yet prevail in the waning days.

Costa noted that “after two years” Congress passed a farm bill closely watched by Central Valley growers. Matsui said that completing a water project authorization bill was a “huge win” for flood-threatened areas like Sacramento, while President Barack Obama last month signed a $16 billion veterans health care overhaul potentially important to California’s 1.7 million veterans.

“There is no doubt that obstruction has prevented Congress from meeting pressing needs of the American people, but it is important to note significant accomplishments, which may provide clues as to how the institution can become more productive,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said Friday.

Other non-legislative tasks have been completed. The Senate this year, for instance, confirmed 2,166 civilian officials, including nine district or appellate-level judges based in California.

Individual California lawmakers, moreover, have been making their own moves. Nunes, for instance, has been quietly meeting with colleagues since he declared his candidacy for the next chairmanship of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. It’s a largely behind-the-scenes campaign that may pay off after the November elections

Congress will be in D.C. session for 14 days in September and two in October before departing for what the House calendar euphemistically calls “district work.” A post-election lame duck session has a scheduled Dec. 12 end-date, but its productive potential remains unclear.

A drought-fighting bill favored by Central Valley farmers and feared by environmentalists and some Northern California lawmakers remains under negotiation. California businesses, which exported $168 billion worth of goods in 2013, also have a stake in whether Congress finishes long-stalled trade legislation.

“There are many issues that are important to Californians and still need to be addressed, like long-term water legislation for the valley, border security and top-to-bottom immigration reform,” Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Calif., said Friday.

Underscoring the persistent frustration with legislative roadblocks, 38 House members from California have signed a “discharge petition” designed to bring a bill that stabilizes funding for wildland firefighting to the House floor. Though they rarely, if ever, succeed, such discharge petitions send a signal both about policy and roadblocks.

“The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act deserves a vote,” Garamendi said Friday.