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Rebooting California’s Congressional Delegation

Eric McGhee March 11, 2014

We’ve just passed through retirement season in California politics: the weeks leading up to the candidate filing deadline when incumbents who have decided to step down often make their announcements. Six of California’s 53-member delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives have decided not to run; the latest is Democrat Gloria Negrete McLeod, who is leaving after only one term to run for the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Also retiring are John Campbell, Buck McKeon, Gary Miller, George Miller, and Henry Waxman.

Six retirements might seem like a lot, but California’s rate of open seats this year (11%) is only slightly above the national rate (9%) and in line with the national rate in other recent non-redistricting years. (The disruption caused by redrawn district lines usually increases the number of retirements.)

California had gotten used to low turnover in part because the districts drawn by the legislature in 2001 preserved the status quo. But the new independent redistricting commission and top-two primary have opened the floodgates. Fourteen incumbents either retired or were defeated for reelection in 2012. With this year’s retirements (not all of which can be traced to the reforms), more than a third of the delegation will have turned over by the time the dust settles this fall.

This turnover is having a dramatic impact. At the start of the 112th Congress in 2011, California’s delegation had served an average of 15.1 years, far higher than the national average of 9.8 years (this number comes from the Congressional Research Service). But by the start of the 113th Congress in 2013, California’s average had plummeted to 10.2 years, and with this year’s retirements it will fall to 9.7 (or lower if some incumbents are not reelected). In the context of congressional history, that’s like pressing the reset button.

This rapid change raises questions about what we need from our representatives. On the one hand, we want turnover in Congress. New members can bring new ideas and fresh perspectives. At the very least, we want to feel like we can kick members out of office if we get fed up with them.

On the other hand, experienced representation can be more effective for both the state and the nation as a whole, and even mediocre representatives gain influence over time. Incumbent retirements or losses since 2010 have included the top majority or minority member on eight committees and 10 subcommittees, some of them among the most influential in Congress. The state should expect a diminished profile on Capitol Hill as a result.

Which is better: experience or responsiveness? There’s no simple answer. Without passing judgment on the specific members who have retired, one might argue that the pre-reform delegation had gotten out of whack, with too many members serving too long. But if things shift too far the other direction we could lose all the benefits of experience.

The recent turnover puts California at the national average for the first time in decades. We’ll see what impact that has on both behavior and legislation.

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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