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Punchbowl.News John Bresnahan on California in Congress

Along with two other highly esteemed D.C. correspondents, veteran Capitol Hill reporter John Bresnahan earlier this year launched the excellent news service Punchbowl.News. More than a daily email newsletter, Punchbowl publishes multiple editions each day that tracks the real flow of power in Congress to crisply explain the why and how behind what happens there.

Punchbowl derives its name from the Secret Service’s code word for the Capitol, and it immediately became indispensable to government watchers inside and outside the Beltway. Subscriptions remain free for the daily morning edition, and the premium level subscription provides all editions, special editions when news breaks, and other interesting extras for $30 a month or $300 a year.

In D.C., the news never stops, but Bresnahan kindly took a break to discuss various topics related to the Capitol and California.

Sacto Politico: Punchbowl.News launched the same week as the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. If you could go back in time, what do you wish you had better in place that first week, be it technology, operationally, etc.?

John Bresnahan: Respectfully, Jan. 6 was a terrible day for our country and everyone in the Capitol, as my colleague Jake Sherman and I were. No one was prepared for it, no one had ever seen anything like it. Hopefully, we will never see anything like it again.

If I could do it over again, I would’ve taken more videos and posted them. Trying to tell the story of that day was too overwhelming to simply put into words. I think additional videos would help to explain what I witnessed and the horrific nature of the assault on the Capitol and democracy.

S/P: During the impeachment trial, we didn’t hear much from staffers about Jan. 6. Given every elected member of Congress is also responsible for their staff, does resentment linger that not everything was done to keep staff safe?

JB: This is an excellent point. I’ve talked to dozens of staffers about Jan. 6. Some were so scared by that event that they haven’t returned to work. One lives in a building next to where bombs were planted – outside the RNC – and is extremely worried about her children’s safety. She now leaves them with a relative outside the city while she and her husband go to work every day.

There is also tremendous anger among staffers in both parties at former President Donald Trump and those who abetted his efforts leading up to the Jan. 6 attack. The people who work on Capitol Hill care deeply for their country and its government. What happened that day greatly affected many of them personally, and they are very upset at the behavior they saw by Trump supporters.

S/P: Senator Alex Padilla (D-CA) has taken over as chair of the Immigration Subcommittee. The Biden Administration has just sent its immigration bill to Congress. How much of a trial by fire will this be for a freshman senator?

JB: It’s going to be interesting to see how Padilla handles his subcommittee. He’s already formally changed the title for the subcommittee [from “Border Security and Immigration” to just “Immigration”], so it shows you how vital this issue is to him, the son of Mexican immigrants.

There’s very little chance the Biden immigration legislation can get through as one bill, but Democrats have vowed to break into smaller packages and move it that way. That would offer Padilla an opportunity to take a leading role.

S/P: On the House side, California has a 53-member delegation. Thus nearly one in every eight representatives is from California. Plus, there’s Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy leading their caucuses. Does this create any special California flavor to the business of Congress?

JB: There are Californians chairing major committees too – Maxine Waters, Mark Takano and Adam Schiff – and another California Democrat, Karen Bass, is seen as a potential speaker of the House one day.

There’s definitely a strong California role in every national policy initiative that comes through Congress. So often, California has looked at or dealt with these issues before they get to the national or congressional level. Look at climate change, for instance. California has been dealing with this issue for years, and now the rest of the country has been forced too as well. So California has an immense role in all big issues, both at the delegation level and state government. S/P: Among California’s 42 House Democrats is split between the 15 members of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and the 20 members of Congressional Progressive Caucus. (Eight members aren’t part of either group, and Jimmy Panetta is a member of both.) Where does their power rivalry stand right now?

JB: This is a big divide in the entire House Democratic Caucus, not just among California Democrats. So Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders have to address this ideological divide on every issue that comes before the House. For instance, on President Biden’s Covid relief package that will come before the House this week, Pelosi has had to deal with issues such as the minimum wage, income thresholds for federal aid, and stimulus checks for undocumented immigrants, all issues that touch the moderate-progressive divide inside the caucus. S/P: A big California issue is when will Diane Feinstein’s Senate seat open. Hypothetically, if she retired tomorrow, the two Democrats with the biggest campaign war chests are U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff ($14M) and Katie Porter ($10M). How do you view/handicap these two and other potential successors for this seat?

JB: Schiff is now making noises about being appointed California attorney general, so this issue may resolve itself. I’d also think Karen Bass would get looked at for a Senate appointment to replace Feinstein if it comes to that. There were a number of political figures in California who pressed Newsom on Bass, and some were disappointed when he appointed Padilla. I think we would see that kind of pressure of Newsom again if Feinstein retires before her term is up.

S/P: California is proud of being a leader of political trends, but not all have been positive. For example, former California Rep. Henry Waxman gave Congress the Leadership PAC. What’s your opinion of these: slush funds or something else? And post-Citizens United, are leadership-aligned SuperPACs the real Leadership PACs of the 21st century?

JB: There’s definitely not enough scrutiny given to leadership PACs, but super PACs are a much greater problem. The amount of money that has flowed into super PACs is stunning, especially dark money. They’ve supplanted the party organizations in some ways, and this a huge issue.

S/P: Do you have a favorite Californian you have covered and why?

JB: I’ve known a number of California members for years and have solid relationships with many of them. I’ve known Pelosi for more than two decades now, and I’m always fascinated by the way she operates, and how she uses the powerful position she’s achieved. I also have a good relationship with Kevin McCarthy; I was the first reporter to write that he was running for House leadership.

On a personal level, I got to know [former U.S. Reps.] Henry Waxman and Howard Berman, as well as their aides, very well. Both were very smart politicians and were highly successful on Capitol Hill. They were also open to talking to reporters, which made them easy to cover.

I’ve also covered Sen. Feinstein for a long time. She has been a historic figure in California politics, as well as being well respected inside the Senate Democratic Caucus.

S/P: Last, a regular question we ask most of our interview subjects – What is your favorite book, movie or TV show about politics and why?

JB: I always make new reporters read “The Ambition and The Power” by John Barry. It’s about the rise and fall of former Speaker of the House Jim Wright. It’s the best book about Congress by far.

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