When it comes to an upsurge in federal funding generosity for local priorities, better times ahead are likely in store for the Bay Area and California in general. Historically, Speakers of the U.S. House of Representatives have funneled impressive amounts of cash to their home states. And speakers don’t particularly need to scramble for appropriations because fellow congressmen are only too willing to keep them happy.
House Speaker Tip O’Neill virtually created the $14.6 billion financial package for downtown Boston’s Big Dig tunnel, to date the single most expensive public works project in U.S. history. Dennis Hastert, who is resigning as of year-end after being speaker since 1999, channeled millions of dollars to his hometown of Aurora, Ill.
Seventeen-year speaker Sam Rayburn showered his native Texas with federal construction and boosted the oil industry with valuable tax breaks. Yet Rayburn’s honesty was legendary. He accepted no contributions from lobbyists and insisted on paying his own expenses everywhere. He died in 1961 with only $10,000 in personal savings.
It is to be fervently hoped that San Franciscan Nancy Pelosi, who will become the first Californian as well as the first woman to be elected speaker of the House, will follow in the Rayburn tradition of integrity. There is a fine line between being responsive to the legitimate needs of longtime local supporters and merely throwing big money at your home district for unnecessary projects such as that notorious Alaskan bridge to nowhere.
On the other hand, it would almost seem like payback for California to finally have the chance to win a fairer return on its federal taxes. Studies consistently show that for many decades, California taxpayers have been paying considerably more to Washington than they get back in terms of federal spending. For example, military bases and U.S. research facilities consistently went to less-populated states that were home to longtime congressional committee chairman.
Now with the Democrats returned to the majority in both houses of Congress, the large and predominantly Democratic California delegation will wield great power and hold key spending-committee chairmanships. The Bay Area will be home to a possibly unprecedented concentration of senior congressional leaders.
Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi is of course from San Francisco, as is three-term Sen. Diane Feinstein. California’s second senator, Barbara Boxer, lives just across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County. Congressman Tom Lantos of San Mateo County has served 24 years and is in line to chair the House Foreign Relations Committee.
None of these members of Congress has ever been the least bit shy about actively going after significant funding forthe Bay Area. With California’s passage of a record-breaking infrastructure bond package this month, matching federal funds are likely to flow through from Washington more smoothly than in the past.
If there is an immediate downside to the Bay Area’s suddenly improved congressional clout, it is the risk that San Francisco could look bad and lose business opportunities if a blatantly pork "bridge to nowhere" type of project arrives locally. Also, Pelosi’s political enemies will be watching more closely than ever for opportunities to castigate "San Francisco values" if local elected officials or activists do something either highly controversial or just silly.