Even with 52 members, California still has the largest congressional delegation in the House: 40 Democrats and 12 Republicans. But the retirements of Cardenas and Rep. Grace Napolitano, along with the departures of Reps. Katie Porter, Barbara Lee and Adam Schiff, who are seeking an open seat in the state Senate, represent a collective loss of nearly 90 years of legislative experience.
The brain drain – so far, all Democrats – is unlikely to stop there. We haven’t yet finished retirement announcement season, which basically runs through the end of January, after members have spent time with their families over the holidays. And there will be up to 10 competitive seats in California next year, a handful of which are considered sweepstakes. That means — at a bare minimum — that about a tenth of the California House delegation to the next Congress will be made up of first-timers learning the ropes in an institution where seniority matters.
This is not ideal for a large state delegation that is already quite green: 15 of the current 52 members were elected in 2018 and after.
Under the current Republican regime in the House of Representatives, the blue state’s influence was already diminished — and that was before former Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield was ousted in October. Today, there are no Californians leading the Republican Party and the state does not chair any committees. While the power of committee chairs has been in decline for years, a chairmanship remains a powerful asset for protecting and advancing state interests – rank-and-file members alone cannot play their role in shaping policies or in the distribution of federal spending.
California still constitutes the largest and most dominant bloc in the Democratic caucus. That will come in handy if the House flips in 2024. But former Speaker Nancy Pelosi is in the twilight of her career and the highest-ranking Californian currently leading the House, Rep. Pete Aguilar, is only holding office. the third position. It’s true that California has the highest-ranking Democrat on three committees, but two of them are 75 or older.
Contrast this with the start of the Obama era, when the Golden State was unquestionably the leader of a Democratic-controlled Congress, led by then-House Speaker Pelosi and four House committee chairmen. In the Senate, the state had two powerful senators who served for decades, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
Currently, California has two relatively young senators: Alex Padilla, appointed in 2021 and won his first full term last year, and Laphonza Butler, appointed last month. Since she announced she would not seek a full term next year, she will be replaced by another Senate rookie.
The recent wave of retirements in the House is part of a broader national phenomenon — Cardenas was the 10th member of the House or Senate this month to announce he was calling it quits, the second in a month going back at least as far back as 2011. That’s good news for the legion of ambitious politicians in California, who typically huddle in waiting for the next big political opportunity. But it’s not so great that the most populous state in the country is a weakling in Washington.