In matters big and small, California sways Congress

Brie is served alongside bean soup in the House cafeteria. Bowls of Ghirardelli chocolate have replaced ashtrays in the Capitol's once smoke-filled rooms. The Congressional Wine Caucus boasts 250 members, which is 30 more lawmakers than voted for health care reform.

Rarely has one state so dominated the U.S. Congress as California during the first decade of the 21st century.

California's influence on Capitol Hill, on the rise since the state overtook New York in population in the early 1960s, reached a tipping point in the 2000s, akin to Virginia in the first years of the republic.

First there is its size. California's 53- member House delegation is the largest in American history, larger than the combined delegations of the smallest 22 states combined.

Then there are its partisan districts, which allow most members to serve as long as they wish. The average California representative is in his or her seventh term.

And with size and seniority comes power. San Francisco's Nancy Pelosi became the first House speaker from California in 2007, and has established herself as the most commanding congressional leader in a generation. Since 2000, at least 15 Californians — Republicans and Democrats — have chaired full committees (dozens more have chaired subcommittees), including the House's four most powerful: Ways and Means, Appropriations, Energy and Commerce and Rules.

So what has come of California's clout? Do its representatives work together to craft California-friendly legislation or team up to make sure the state receives a disproportionately large slice of the federal pie? The short answer is no.

There has been cooperation on matters like fire relief. California also receives its share of earmarks (referred to as "pork" when they go to another state), ranging from $1 million to study the Sacramento River to $25,000 to sponsor free concerts by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra.

Yet the state ends the decade as it began, as a donor state, meaning that its residents pay more in federal taxes than they receive from Washington. According to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, by the middle of the decade — the last time the data was collected — it received roughly 78 cents for every dollar collected. Only eight states fared worse.

But those who dismiss California influence based solely on the dollars secured by its delegation miss the bigger picture: California's priorities are now the nation's priorities. Issues such as the environment, technology and Pacific Rim trade have moved to the top of the national agenda.

To pass a cap-and-trade energy bill in the House this year, it took a California speaker (Pelosi) backed by nearly unanimous support from California Democrats to maneuver another Californian (Henry Waxman) to replace an automobile-friendly Michigander (Rep. John Dingell) as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Even before Pelosi stormed into the speakership, House Republican leaders elevated a record number of Californians into key committee posts in recognition of the state's electoral importance.

Of course, a victory for one part of the state may be a defeat for another.

Was it a victory for California when the House voted in 2006 to weaken the federal moratorium on offshore oil drilling? The bill was written by a Californian (former Rep. Richard Pombo of Tracy) and supported by nearly all the state's Republicans. Or was it a victory for California when the bill died in the Senate, thanks in part to the state's two Democratic senators? Was it a victory for California when the House passed the health care bill? The bill would have failed without Pelosi's push and the support of all 34 of the state's House Democrats. On the other hand all 19 of the state's Republicans voted against it.

The divided delegation is often blamed for California's failures in Washington. But the reason California remains a donor state has much to do with the decline of the state's aerospace industry, which brought lucrative defense contracts to the Golden State. Perhaps more important, Californians tend to be younger and healthier — and thus receive less Medicare — than residents in the rest of the country.

Over the next decade, Washington's leadership will likely look increasingly like California's does now. There will be more women, Latinos and Asians.

California's reign in Washington — however you define it — will last as long as the census keeps counting more and more Californians.

Sandalow, the former Washington bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle, teaches politics and journalism at the University of California's Washington Center. He is editor of the Washington-based California News Service.