It’s remarkable what California’s 53 members of the U.S. House of Representatives can do when they decide to work together.
This corps of politicians together makes up almost one-eighth of the lower house of Congress, holding many influential committee and subcommittee chairmanships regardless of which party is in power.
But California’s potentially immense clout as America’s most populous state is only rarely brought to bear in the nation’s capital because of ideological differences. The state’s impotence could best be seen this year on the House Intelligence Committee, where Republican Chairman Devin Nunes of Hanford released a report attempting to whitewash President Trump in the Russia election tampering scandal over the strong opposition of the ranking Democrat on the panel, Adam Schiff, who represents Pasadena, Burbank and almost everything in between.
Conversely, Trump also gave Californians in Congress an opportunity this spring to demonstrate what they can accomplish on the rare occasions that they opt to work together for the good of the entire state.
When Trump tried to remove $10 million from the federal budget that was earmarked to continue work on and perhaps complete a West Coast earthquake early warning system, California Democrats and Republicans alike reversed his action and then some.
Instead of $10 million for the system, the budget bill Trump eventually signed actually contained $22.9 million. Of that, $10 million goes to the physical buildout of the remaining 800 or so seismic watch stations (more than 800 had already been set up, but Trump was willing to waste all that prior work). The other $12.9 million is for continued development of the early warning system’s technical aspects, which will likely be refined and improved continually for decades to come.
The prime mover in this total turnaround of Trump’s choice was Republican Ken Calvert of Corona, usually a quiet back-bencher, but the holder of one of those influential chairmanships. Calvert heads an appropriations subcommittee overseeing the United States Geological Survey, builder of the system and essentially the country’s earthquake arbiter.
“I will continue to be a champion for this life-saving technology that can have a significant impact when big earthquakes hit,” he said in a statement. “Let’s take the steps we can to save Americans from preventable injuries during natural disasters.”
His comment was echoed by Schiff, an early advocate of the warning system, known as ShakeAlert. Schiff’s district sits just south of the San Andreas Fault where it runs east-west near the San Gabriel Mountains. Schiff thanked Calvert for his leadership, adding that “This system… will save lives across California, Oregon and Washington.”
With Californians nearly unanimous in supporting it, the vote for even more funding than Trump had tried to eliminate was quiet and overwhelming.
Maybe some of the nearly $13 million in development money can now be deployed to convince jaded Californians who have seen plenty of unfulfilled disaster warnings and evacuations notice to pay attention to warnings that may come 30 seconds to a minute before big shocks occur.
That skeptical quality was seen in Santa Barbara County’s mudslide-plagued Montecito, where many residents in slide-prone areas deliberately ignored mandatory evacuation warnings during the spring season’s last large rainstorms. There had been too many false alarms following the winter’s previous serious barrage of earth movement.
The USGS took note and is now trying to decide whether and how early to issue warnings using information from the new system. Too early and a quake might turn out to be very small, rendering warnings unneeded; too late and lives could be lost.
The difficult part is that when earthquakes begin, it’s impossible to know how great their impact will be.
So part of ShakeAlert’s mission will be to convince Californians to heed quake warnings, even after some of them have fizzled.
But that’s secondary to the ultimate good that this system will do as it saves lives by getting people off bridges and away from buildings where they could be hit by falling debris.
It’s all very important, but the real meaning of the vote to reverse Trump was to demonstrate for the first time in years what Californians in Congress can do when they work together. Too bad they don’t do it more often.