Politics leaks into efforts to help with California drought

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

San Joaquin Valley congressional Republicans took aim this week and missed their stated goal of helping California cope with drought.

Now, having unsuccessfully tried a long-shot, last-minute farm bill maneuver, the GOP lawmakers are regrouping. Their next steps are unclear, though some are certainly on the way.

“The situation we have in the Valley today calls for extreme measures,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said Tuesday. “We’re going to continue to do everything in our power to bring ideas forward until something sticks.”

One key question now is whether this week’s failed effort to add California water language to a farm bill poisons the well or, alternatively, builds effective long-term pressure. Another question is what political lessons might be learned to ease future drought action. There’s also the question of what future legislation would look like.

California’s House Republicans hashed out some of the water questions in their weekly private lunch Tuesday.

“We’re looking at, tactically, when we can get something on the House floor, and what we can get on the House floor,” Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said Tuesday. “We have got to get something on the floor to have a vehicle.”

Their first vehicle stalled.

Valley Republicans announced their intentions to push California water legislation at a Bakersfield-area news conference on Jan. 22. The presence of House Majority Leader John Boehner emphasized their seriousness and their clout.

Instead of introducing legislation, the lawmakers wrote language they hoped to drop into a final farm bill. They had been working behind the scenes for a while, Valadao said Tuesday, and they had secured the formidable backing of Boehner and the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Ken Lucas, R-Okla.

“This is the last chance to make a difference for tens of thousands of Central Valley farmers and residents whose water supplies are running critically low,” Valadao, Nunes and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy declared in a press release sent Monday morning.

The Monday press release created immediate Valley news and social media buzz, including some that could help Valadao in his re-election bid. On Tuesday, following rejection of the water language the night before, the three House Republicans jointly declared that “California’s senators have rejected yet another House initiative to bring more water” to the San Joaquin Valley.

Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee told reporters in a teleconference Tuesday that the California water language arrived too late for serious consideration. Stabenow further stressed the last-minute proposal “was never discussed at the member level,” and a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Tom Mentzer, added Tuesday that “neither the senator nor her staff were approached about this.”

Parachuting last-minute language into House and Senate negotiations is an oft-seen, if occasionally controversial, way of doing business on Capitol Hill. Sometimes it works. Nunes, for instance, once deployed a 3,000-page omnibus spending bill to secure passage of a two-paragraph measure helping owners of cabins in Sequoia National Park’s Mineral King Valley.

The California water language, though, was always going to be a more difficult sell. The GOP Valley lawmakers had power behind them, but not momentum.

House and Senate farm bill negotiators had been conferring since October, without talking about California water. No agriculture committee hearings had been conducted on the California water proposals. The last House consideration of related California water legislation occurred in February 2012.

The farm bill negotiators, moreover, already had their hands full compromising on everything from food stamps to dairy policy. They were two years late in reaching a delicate balance that could pass Congress, and so were leery of fresh conflict.

“It is gross irresponsibility, to be throwing in at the very last minute a highly controversial proposal,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Calif., said in an interview. “It’s foolishness, and it diverts our attention from what we should be doing.”

Garamendi represents a district near the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and often opposes the San Joaquin Valley lawmakers who represent farmers south of the Delta. Besides their frequent policy differences, Garamendi is also willing to make tart political observations, as when he suggested that the water maneuver was designed to help spotlight Valadao’s initiative amid a competitive reelection bid.

“It was a gross power play,” Garamendi said.

But Nunes countered that last-minute negotiations are “when everything gets brought up,” and Aubrey Bettencourt of the California Water Alliance, lobbying Capitol Hill on Tuesday likewise insisted that “if you have emergency legislation, you’re going to look for any vehicle to move it.”

By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau