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State lawmakers wield foreign policy power

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  • State lawmakers wield foreign policy power

    State lawmakers wield foreign policy power
    By Lisa Friedman, Washington Bureau

    Los Angeles Daily News, CA
    Aug 7 2005

    WASHINGTON -- From the Iraq War to tensions in the Mideast to the
    extradition of criminals hiding in Mexico, California's influence on
    U.S. foreign policy is intensifying.

    About 25 percent of the U.S. House committee overseeing international
    affairs hails from the Golden State, leading some aides to jokingly
    refer to the panel's "California cabal" even as Congress' foreign
    policy demands increasingly reflect the state's diversity and global
    economic ties.

    Twelve of the panel's 50 members represent California, including
    the leading Democrat, Tom Lantos of San Mateo, one other Northern
    Californian, one from the Central Valley, and nine representing
    various parts of the Southland. Three Californians chair subcommittees
    on issues ranging from Europe to State Department oversight to
    international terrorism.

    "California members are very active in international relations because
    the state is an economic powerhouse," said Matthew Reynolds, acting
    assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, a liaison
    between Congress and the State Department.

    Reynolds said California "is on the threshold of a lot of things. Its
    interests are political, human rights, there's interest in security
    issues, and I think you've probably got every group covered in

    With the largest delegation in Congress, California might be expected
    to be represented in large numbers everywhere but isn't.

    Californians make up less than 10 percent of nearly every other panel
    in Congress just five members serve on Transportation, six on Armed
    Services and five on Appropriations. Only the Resources Committee,
    which oversees federal land and water policy, comes close with nine
    Californians making up about 18 percent of the panel.

    Lawmakers say the state's relationship as a trade partner with more
    than 220 countries, and the fact that Californians trace their roots
    from more than 100 nations, primarily account for the Golden State's
    disproportionate involvement in foreign affairs.

    "There's a natural interest in international affairs, perhaps even
    greater than other parts of the country," said Rep. Howard Berman,
    D-Van Nuys. "California's economy, its international dimension,
    plays a huge factor as well as the part that so many Californians
    come from other countries."

    But California interests are, of course, anything but homogenous.

    Orange County's Vietnamese community, for example, may press for human
    rights in Vietnam while Los Angeles' Armenian community urges an end
    to Turkey's blockade of Armenia.

    Congresswoman Grace Napolitano, D-Santa Fe Springs, uses her position
    to encourage better relations between the U.S. and Latin America,
    while Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, wields his influence
    to highlight long-standing human rights concerns in China. Rep. Adam
    Schiff, D-Pasadena, meanwhile, focuses his committee efforts on
    curbing nuclear proliferation.

    "Foreign policy issues are now intertwined with national security
    issues," he said.

    Israel and the Palestinian territories also are frequent points of
    contention, even within the California delegation.

    Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Sherman Oaks, for example, recently worked
    language into a bill calling for an end to U.S. aid to the Palestinian
    Authority as long as its government-sponsored textbooks deny the
    existence of Israel. Lee, in a counteramendment, softened the provision
    so that only aid to Palestinian education programs would be affected.

    Overall, though, lawmakers say the foreign policy bills emerging
    from Congress tend to have an overarching California theme: active
    engagement in global affairs.

    "Mostly it reflects a recognition of an internationalist approach
    rather than an isolationist approach," Berman said. "What goes on
    around the world has an impact on us, and we need to be engaged."

    And engaged they are. For example, two laws about to go into effect
    one authorizing the U.S. State Department for another two years
    and another approving international U.S. assistance are filled with
    provisions authored by Californians.

    Among them:

    One by Sherman blocking World Bank loans to Iran until the country
    abandons its nuclear program.

    About $4.5 million in scholarship funds for students in Muslim
    countries to attend U.S. schools as part of a program championed by
    Berman to expose more students to American ideas and values.

    Demands from Reps. Elton Gallegly, R-Thousand Oaks, and Darrell Issa,
    R-Vista, for the State Department to submit detailed statistical
    reports regarding Mexico extradition requests.

    Meanwhile, the panel will vote next month on whether the killing
    of Armenians in Turkey during the Ottoman Empire should be declared
    "genocide." That's a direct result of Schiff, whose district is home
    to many of California's estimated 400,000 Armenians.

    Armen Carapetian, spokesman for the Armenian National Committee of
    America's western region in Glendale, said that for Armenians, having
    a lawmaker on the International Relations Committee is as important
    as having one on a bread-and-butter panel like Appropriations.

    "It certainly helps to have your local congressman represent you in
    places where it matters," Carapetian said.

    Added former Los Angeles Rep. Mel Levine, now head of community
    relations for the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, "It's very important,
    and there's no doubt that the pro-Israel community pays a lot of
    attention to this committee."

    Levine, who served on International Relations himself when in Congress,
    also noted that with more than 15 lawmakers representing a portion of
    Los Angeles County, no one lawmaker bears the sole burden of bringing
    home federal money. That, he said, frees up politicians who want to
    exercise their own intellectual interests in world affairs.

    "Our constituents tolerate it, even encourage it," Sherman agreed. "A
    Nebraska congressman might go home (after joining the foreign affairs
    panel) and his constituents would say 'You gave up the Agriculture
    Committee for that?"'

    Gallegly said he also thinks California constituents want their
    representatives in Washington to be tuned in to the world.

    "Let's face it," he said. "We live in a global society. People are
    a lot more interested in what's going on around the world and how it
    affects us at home."
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