2014 will see big changes for voice of Calif. in Congress

California has more members of Congress than any state in the nation, and for decades it's been a largely familiar cast of characters -- veteran legislators from both parties who have given voice to the Golden State's view on national and international issues.

But since 2012, there's been a steady stream of change. And now, a new wave of political retirements will leave California with a very different set of voices -- and perhaps, new priorities -- in the public and private politicking that happens on Capitol Hill.

On Thursday, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Beverly Hills, announced he will retire this fall after four decades in the U.S. House of Representatives. "If there is a time for me to move on to another chapter in my life, I think this is the time to do it," he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.

Whatever you think of his politics, Waxman is a California political icon. Elected in 1974 as one of dozens of so-called 'Watergate babies' in the wake of that national scandal, the liberal Democrat has put his stamp on everything from tobacco policy to environmental law to foreign affairs.

Waxman was only the latest of the state's powerful members of Congress to step aside -- the third this month alone. Almost three weeks ago, another of the 1974 elected Democrats, Rep. George Miller, D-Richmond, announced he, too, will retire. And three days after that, Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, announced he will step aside after 12 years in Congress.

These changes come less than two years after the real exodus began, one sparked from the once-a-decade redrawing of political districts by California's new independent citizens commission. That change, based on the big demographics changes that California has seen in the past decade, helped convinced several veteran representatives from California that their days in Congress were over. Add those who walked away to those defeated for re-election, and 2013 saw 14 new California members of Congress -- almost a quarter of the state's 53 seats in the House.

No doubt each veteran politician makes the decision to leave for different reasons; some are ready to move on, some have seen the political odds in their districts change, and a few have experienced something that rarely happens in American politics -- an outright defeat at the polls of a long-time incumbent member of Congress.

But whatever the reason, all of this represents real change. Some have suggested it's a loss of political power. Miller, Waxman, and McKeon were all either the chair or ranking minority member of powerful congressional committees -- a spot that often allows a lawmaker to funnel government business or tax dollars back home.

"I think there will be a loss of clout," said political scientist Bruce Cain, director of the Stanford's Center for the American West. But Cain also says it represents real opportunity for change.

"There are dozens of local and state elected officials that have been frustrated in moving up the ranks," he said. "And now there are a few openings."

Waxman's departure in the liberal enclave west of downtown Los Angeles resulted in a fast scramble of local Democrats within hours of the news breaking. And under California's still new June election rules, the top two vote getters -- regardless of party -- move on to November, virtually ensuring an intraparty fight through the summer and fall.

In the end, says political scientist Cain, some of these Washington warriors may have just gotten tired of the politics... especially House Democrats stuck between GOP leadership and their standard bearer in the White House.

"To be in the minority in the House and to be in the President's party means you have no influence in the Congress, and you can have no fun in opposition," he said. "It is the worst of all worlds."


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