Biting the Fed's Hand Won't Bring Money to California

03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This post first appeared on Fox & Hounds Daily

Somebody should take California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger aside and remind him that you never bite the hand that feeds you - even if you're still hungry after being fed.

Faced with a $20 billion-plus budget deficit, a record-low approval rating and no prospect of garnering the two-thirds legislative vote required to raise taxes, he released a draconian state budget earlier this month and blamed everyone but himself for the fiscal mess that made it

To help close the fiscal gap, Schwarzenegger is in
D.C. this week, along with state legislative leaders, with hat in hand to lobby
the California delegation for billions of dollars. But the welcome sign
probably won't be hanging on the doors of the Washington lawmakers. This month
has been marked by rancor between the governor and the Democrat-dominated
delegation over what he claims Washington owes California.

In typical Governator style, Schwarzenegger swings too
high and too wide, invariably earning the enmity of Democratic legislators. After nearly seven years in office, governing hasn't
yet tamed his outsized movie persona. Schwarzenegger still draws on the tough
rhetoric and bravado from his "pumping iron" and "Conan the Barbarian" days to
pummel his political opponents.

For example, after a brief post-election honeymoon, he and the Democratic legislative
majority deadlocked over his 2004 budget. Grousing to a friendly audience, the
new governor lashed out at his legislative opponents. "They cannot have the guts to come out there in front of you and
say, 'I don't want to represent you. I want to represent those special
interests -- the unions, the trial lawyers.' ... I call them girlie-men."

Four years later,
Schwarzenegger was back in the face of California Democrats, who firmly control
both houses of the Legislature, with his successful support for Proposition 11.
The measure took legislative reapportionment out of the hands of incumbent
state lawmakers and gave it to a citizens' commission. The state's congressional delegation was exempted
from the rule change after some of its members threatened unprecedented
spending to defeat the proposal.

With this kind of track record, Schwarzenegger
shouldn't be surprised to meet resistance in Washington to his goal of "work[ing] with
the feds so that we can fix the flawed formula that demands that the states
spend money that we do not have." But lately he's gone the extra mile in ticking off Democrats.

When releasing his 2010-11 budget, the governor claimed that "the federal government
owes us billions of dollars." He insisted that Washington was "unfair" in returning to California less money than it sent to the Treasury while "subsidizing" other states. He turned particular ire toward California's congressional delegation, accusing it of "not ... representing us really well in this case."

Then, with a straight face, the Republican governor, who early on stood with new President
Obama on the need for major health care reform, complained that what "started as noble and needed legislation has become a trough of bribes, deals and loopholes."

He went on to insist, still with a straight face, that California's lop-sided Democratic congressional delegation (Democrats, including the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi,
outnumber Republicans 34-19) "should either vote against this bill that is a disaster for California or get in there and fight for the same sweetheart deal that Sen. Nelson of Nebraska got for the Cornhusker State."

In terms of Republican Party politics, that kind of blast might make sense for Schwarzenegger, whose approval rating within his own party was just 31% in the last Field Poll, because it feeds into the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington fervor bounding around the country. Californians' approval of Congress (23%) is even lower than their approval of Schwarzenegger, and only 9% of Republicans approve of the job Congress is doing.

In addition, fighting the populist fight could help the governor rescue a legacy that, right now, looks highly anemic - if not near-catastrophic. More likely, fighting the populist fight against
California's representatives in Congress (not to mention abandoning Obama's top domestic priority) will make winning the federal lottery - never a slam-dunk to begin with - all the more problematic.

Schwarzenegger originally singled out Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer, who's up for reelection this year, for criticism. The state's other senator, Dianne Feinstein, with whom he has worked on previous issues, was spared. But when Feinstein shot back at Schwarzenegger's "finger-pointing," insisting that "California's budget crisis was created in Sacramento, not Washington," and Boxer refuted Schwarzenegger's claim that California is a "donor state," the tiff escalated.

Schwarzenegger fired back. In a letter requesting a meeting with them, he lambasted Washington lawmakers for "recent comments in the press that California's budget deficit is not Washington's problem." He wailed at Feinstein, as well as GOP
Rep. David Dreier, for the federal government's lackadaisical control of the border with Mexico and demanded that the fed should pay the state's costs for incarcerating illegal immigrants.

Interestingly, the $6.9 billion that Schwarzenegger is demanding from the feds would likely cover just the current-year deficit. Even so, that would allow him to end his final term as governor with another budget balanced with blue smoke and mirrors and, hopefully, a minimum amount of tar-and-feathering in the offing.

Closing the long-term budget sinkhole will be the worry of California's new governor, whoever he or she may be.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a senior fellow in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California and political analyst for KNBC4, Los Angeles.