Californians Shape Up as Force on Environmental Policy

(Manuel Balce Ceneta - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 29, 2008

California Democrats will assume pivotal roles in the new Congress and White House, giving the state an outsize influence over federal policy and increasing the likelihood that its culture of activist regulation will be imported to Washington.

In Congress, Democrats from the Golden State are in key positions to write laws to mitigate global warming, promote "green" industries and alternative energy, and crack down on toxic chemicals. Down Pennsylvania Avenue, Californians in the new White House will shape environmental, energy and workplace safety policies.

"It's unique in terms of the power of this state in modern times," said James A. Thurber, who directs the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. To find another example of a state wielding such national influence, Thurber had to reach back to Texas in the 1950s, when Sam Rayburn was the House speaker and Lyndon B. Johnson was the Senate majority leader.

The current speaker, Nancy Pelosi, is the most prominent member of the California delegation. As leader of a sometimes fractious caucus, Pelosi has had to find common ground between conservative and liberal Democrats. But she has been firm about her intention to bring the kind of climate-change legislation embraced by California to the national level, and she was quietly supportive when a California colleague, Rep. Henry A. Waxman, pushed out Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a November caucus election, Waxman narrowly beat Dingell, who held the chair for 16 years and was seen by critics as too protective of the auto industry. Waxman, who has crafted an image as a champion of consumers, taxpayers and the environment, takes over next month. Energy and Commerce handles more than half of the legislation that flows through Congress. Its sprawling portfolio includes climate change, air quality and health matters -- issues that have consumed policymakers in California.

Waxman's counterpart in the Senate is Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. "California has always valued protecting the environment and health and safety of our people," Boxer said in a telephone interview. "The people from California who are coming here to work on this and Congressman Waxman and myself, we are very strong on this."

Obama has chosen Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to be energy secretary, and he tapped Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley to run the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. Obama also selected Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat from Los Angeles, to become labor secretary, charged with enforcing workplace safety laws, among other duties. And Christina D. Romer, a University of California at Berkeley economist, will chair the Council of Economic Advisers.

One longtime Capitol Hill observer cautioned that although these Californians are in key positions to shape federal policy, they don't necessarily share a single California philosophy. Still, they have been shaped by experience in a state that has led the nation in regulatory policy.

Since the 1970s, when it became the first state in the country to set its own auto emissions standards under the federal Clean Air Act, California has been considered a trendsetter.

When the state tried last year to set tougher emissions standards that would cut tailpipe emissions by 30 percent by 2016, 12 other states followed suit. The Bush administration denied the states, which are hoping the Obama administration or the new Congress will reverse that decision.

After the state banned a class of chemicals, phthalates, from children's products last year, 12 states introduced similar bans.

This month, California regulators took the initial steps toward the nation's first comprehensive plan to curb greenhouse gases. The strategy creates a system of trading pollution permits and cutting emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. Details of the plan are still under development. The next day, state regulators approved the most stringent rules in the country governing emissions from diesel trucks and buses.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company