Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Tom McClintock just said 'no' to 'cliff' solution

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

Never one to build bridges, Rep. Tom McClintock has spent the better part of 30 years in office deriding the government that gives him his paycheck.

But as he showed last week, his political machine of one has gained compatriots among the shrunken but more conservative band of Republicans representing California in the House. That doesn't bode well for California as it tries to get back some of the money it sends to Washington, and certainly not for the Sierra district McClintock represents.

McClintock wasn't among the hard-liners who openly challenged House Speaker John Boehner's leadership when the new Congress convened last week. But he did join several of them for a press event shortly after the November election in Washington, D.C., offering his election analysis and prescription for the Republican Party.

No matter that Barack Obama had won re-election and Democrats gained Senate and House seats. Seeing no need to soften his rigid views, McClintock told reporters that Republicans hold the second-largest majority since World War II.

"According to exit polls, the American people agree with the positions of the Republican Party and heartily disagree with the positions of the Democratic Party," McClintock said, as if in a parallel political universe.

His prescription for the GOP: "We need to wipe our noses, pull up our socks and get back into the game."

For Reps. Tim Huelskamp of Kansas and Raul Labrador of Idaho, who led the postelection panel, getting back into the game meant challenging Boehner's speakership. For McClintock, it meant voting "no" on the legislation that averted falling off what in Washington speak was called the "fiscal cliff."

In California's 53-seat delegation, McClintock is one of 15 Republicans, down by four from last year. He was one of the seven California Republicans who voted against the fiscal cliff legislation. Each remains in Congress.

Of the 11 California Republicans who voted for the bill, six didn't seek re-election or were voted out of office in November, making their votes on HR 8 the last ones of their time in Congress.

Not that the departing members were lefties. Rep. Dan Lungren, the Gold River Republican who was voted out this fall, was no liberal. But unlike McClintock, Lungren and the others sometimes would compromise, as they showed by siding with Boehner and Democrats in last week's vote.

McClintock, who didn't return my call, explained his "no" vote in a statement: "Taxes will now increase on those individuals who earn over $400,000 per year, a great victory for the president's eat-the-rich ideological crusade. But a lot of those wealthy folks aren't even folks: they're 850,000 struggling small businesses."

Knowing that McClintock likes numbers, here are a few others, courtesy of The Bee's expert numbers cruncher, Phillip Reese. The percentage of households in McClintock's congressional district earning more than $200,000 was 5.9 percent in 2011 – a full point below the statewide percentage of 6.9 percent.

In essence, McClintock voted against the interests of his constituents who might benefit from provisions of the bill such as the earned income tax credit or the extension of unemployment benefits.

The legislation raises taxes on couples earning $450,000 or more. But only 2 percent of all taxpayers are in that rarified category. The bill locks in lower rates set by former President George W. Bush for 98 percent of the taxpayers, the bulk of the households in McClintock's district.

The words "moderate Republican" are not often used together these days. There might be an exception or two in the current California delegation. One could be Rep. Jeff Denham, R-Turlock.

He voted for the fiscal cliff legislation, saying after the vote that the legislation would help his San Joaquin Valley district. A mere 3 percent of the households in Denham's district earned more than $200,000 in 2011, far below the statewide percentage, The Bee's Reese found.

Policy considerations aside, a "no" vote on budget-related legislation almost always can help Republican politicians burnish their conservative credentials. And there were plenty reasons to oppose the bill.

Republicans, McClintock among them, decried the lack of spending cuts. Some complained that taxes would rise for some people. Architects of the bill had larded it up with tax breaks for favored industries: Hollywood, NASCAR, and my personal favorite, rum producers.

It all gave McClintock plenty of reasons to oppose the measure. But his vote also was in character. First elected to the state Assembly in 1982, McClintock never rose to a leadership position, and routinely voted against annual budgets.

His cramped style of politics serves his interests well, if not his constituents. He has built a national following among conservatives, and he won re-election in November with 61 percent of the vote in a newly redrawn Congressional District 4.

His new district includes much of what makes California golden, and encompasses Lake Tahoe and Yosemite National Park, ironic given his dim view of environmentalist-backed legislation.

Voters in the new district overlooked that he remains registered to vote in Elk Grove, which is 30 miles away from the eastern edges of the district and 200 miles away from its farthest reaches south of Yosemite.

In Congress, McClintock chairs the House Water and Power Subcommittee. But he has not used that post to help the region obtain funding needed to rebuild Sacramento River levees to avert a flood that would be disastrous for the people of Sacramento. Other members of the Sacramento region's congressional delegation have said he is absent on the issue.

McClintock long aspired to statewide office, running for controller, lieutenant governor and governor. In his 2003 run for governor, he handed out coffee mugs on which he printed his first morning's to-do list:

"Stop the car tax."

"Void overpriced power contracts."

"Fix workers' comp."

"Have lunch."

The funny thing is that it wasn't a joke. The list reflects McClintock's style. He is a one-man operation in a business that relies on compromise. The problem now is that other California Republicans in Congress appear to be coming around to his way of politicking.