What We Need in Congress is a California Caucus

GELFAND ON POLITICS-The California congressional delegation ranges from among the most liberal -- think Barbara Lee or Maxine Waters -- to the most conservative -- think Darrell Issa or Buck McKeon. The conservative faction seems to spend most of its time voting to rescind the Affordable Care Act, while the liberal side mostly sits and stews in its own juices since they aren't allowed to filibuster in the House. No wonder the two sides sincerely despise each other. 

That's too bad, because if they could work together on a few local economic issues, we would all be the better off for it. As the central focus of this argument, I'm going to borrow a theme from another CityWatch writer and talk about the loss of jobs in the southern California aerospace industry, specifically in the manufacture of the new generation of passenger jets. To my mind, the blame falls mainly on the California congressional delegation. 

California by itself has just under one-eighth of all the voting strength in the House of Representatives -- out of 435 seats, we hold 53. That could be a powerful bloc that could have held the line on civil aviation, but didn't. 

Californians invented modern civil aviation. The big success that got the whole thing rolling was created by Donald Douglas and was called the DC3. It started in Santa Monica in the 1930s. You can look it up. During the war years, aircraft plants thrived all over southern California, with miles of production lines in San Diego, and major assembly lines all over the extended L.A. area. There were 280,000 workers employed in the southern California aviation industry at the peak of WW II. 

In the postwar era, wartime production slowed and finally ceased, but southern California, and Los Angeles in particular, continued to thrive. Douglas Aircraft became famous for its fighter aircraft that flew off of US Navy aircraft carriers. Later, The Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank was the world leader in spy plane design and construction. If you ever go over to the Science Center across from the USC campus, you can see one of those Skunk Works spy planes right next to the parking lot. It's impressive. And then there was a guy named Howard Hughes, who made a lot of contributions to the aviation industry locally. 

We had Convair and Rockwell and North American, not to mention Northrup, Consolidated, and Grumman. The B-24 was built just south of here and carried a lot of the load during WW II. 

Southern California played a major role in the space race, including design and construction of parts of the Saturn V. 

And we built the Space Shuttle right here. 

We've also been home to the world's premier testing facility, Edwards Air Force Base. 

But our stake in civil aviation has fallen on more difficult times, and I place at least some of the blame on our congressional delegation. 

You could hear and see the death rattle in Long Beach. McDonnell Douglas, the successor to Douglas Aircraft, had huge assembly plants along Lakewood Blvd next to the Long Beach Airport. They built the MD90 and the MD11, the updated versions of the old DC9 and DC10. But McDonnell Douglas couldn't continue competing with Boeing and with their new competitor, AirBus. Boeing took over the whole McDonnell Douglas corporation, including the Long Beach plant. It was kind of a fire sale and kind of a favor on Boeing's part. As to the MD aircraft, there wasn't much of a decision to make. Why should Boeing build and sell competitors to their own products? The old Douglas planes were phased out. The Long Beach plant, now carrying the Boeing label, continued with only one production line for a military aircraft, the C17 cargo plane. 

In effect, Boeing had attained monopolist status in terms of American construction of long range, widebody jets. This by itself might have inspired some governmental intervention to retain some part of aircraft assembly in southern California, but it was the wrong era politically for this kind of antitrust enforcement action. The old Douglas brand and its proud tradition were left to rot. 

This is where politics could have come into play to our benefit. Pretty much everything done in the aerospace industry has some political component, because in addition to the antitrust implications, the giant aerospace companies mix commercial and defense work. The California congressional delegation should have unified around keeping commercial jetliner assembly going in southern California. We weren't going to take the 767 away from Seattle, but there is enough work available that we could have had a couple of assembly lines. After all, the buildings and technology and skilled workforce were already here. All they needed was a plane to build. 

If nothing else, the California congressional delegation could have written Long Beach into a couple of contracts for military versions of Boeing passenger planes to be bought by the armed forces. There is nothing new or radical idea about this style of log rolling. It's done all the time. Just think of the fact that the NASA manned spaceflight center was placed in Houston, despite the fact that Houston is a long way from either the east coast launch facility at Cape Canaveral or the west coast launch facility at Vandenberg AFB. But the US had a president from Texas who was determined to bring industry to the south and southwest, so we have major NASA facilities in Alabama and Texas. No reason we couldn't have had assembly lines for the 737 or the 777 down here. 

In fact, just recently, Boeing used the threat of moving some 777 production down to Long Beach to extract a favorable contract from its union. It's obvious that the idea is technically feasible. 

The formerly McDonnell Douglas operation in Long Beach, now Boeing, skittered along for another couple of decades building the C17. The airplane has been a success, but the useful lifespan of the construction operation is about over, and with it will go the last assembly in southern California of large-scale airplanes. Perhaps the facility will hang on, building a few planes a year to be split between domestic and export production, but it's a long way from the days when McDonnell Douglas Long Beach produced aircraft by the hundreds. 

Our congressional delegation had the clout, if only it had made use of it, to insist that Boeing transfer some of its civil aviation construction to southern California. After all, the military has been a prime Boeing customer for more than half a century, and the Boeing 707, the jet equivalent of the DC3, was adapted from a military aircraft whose design and construction was paid for by all of us. It can truly be said (and has been, many times), that Boeing was the beneficiary of a huge governmental subsidy when it came to the modern era of commercial jets. Everything they do now, right up to the 787, goes back to that aerial tanker that was adapted to become the 707. 

Would it really have been so impossible for our warring Democrats and Republicans to have worked together for the good of California as a whole? I don't see why not, but they really dropped the ball on this sector of the economy. 

If you are looking for a different sort of precedent in which congressional representatives work across the aisle, we have the congressional port caucus. When Janice Hahn was elected from the San Pedro area a couple of years ago, she went back to Washington and began to meet with other representatives who had something in common. They too represented ports around the country. They come from 3 different seacoasts, from the Great Lakes, and from both political parties. Out of these discussions came the port caucus, which functions politely  in a bipartisan manner because port cities have some common needs and common issues. Out of this shared interest comes funding for security measures that were given short shrift in the not so recent past. We can look for a renewed interest in all things navigational with the advent of this group. 

As another CityWatch writer, Joseph Mailander, continues to point out, the aerospace industry plays a major role in our local economy even now. The Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) recently published a report on the past and future of southern California's aerospace industry. You can download it in pdf form here.  

If you do, you will discover that at one time, Los Angeles was by far the world leader in aviation and produced a substantial fraction of the entire world's output. Since the early 1990s, activity has fallen substantially. Still, Aircraft manufacturing continues to be one of the region's top income generators and contributes to one of the nation's top export industries. The southern California portion of aerospace related exports continues to be a significant part of the total, partly because we build military aircraft and partly because we build components that go into those giant Boeing airplanes. We even sell a few parts to AirBus. 

In other words, the aerospace sector in southern California is actually pretty robust in some areas including military fighter jets, electronics, and subassembly work. The workforce is a lot smaller than it was previously -- a major consideration for the political process to take up -- but those who have survived the cuts make considerably more money than almost any other industrial sector. The lesson we should take to heart is that the California congressional delegation should be protecting our share of the industry in spite of their political differences. There are other parts of the country that would like to take some of the action away from us. 

There ought to be a California Caucus in the US Congress with the stated objective of taking care of business in the Golden State. Darrell Issa and Henry Waxman ought to be able to agree on this one thing at least. 

And here is one task for that caucus. What we don't do is build and export the whole passenger aircraft, which in a previous day was the MD11 widebody passenger jet. It would have been nice to be able to say that we have an assembly line for the 737 or even the new 787, which would have been a nice fit for the abandoned MD90 lines in Long Beach. Boeing certainly has a large enough backlog of orders to justify tossing some of the riches our way. 

For the aviation enthusiast, I have one more link to add. When it comes to nostalgia and local history, the website of the Skyhawk association is quite fascinating. You can find pictures of what was once the Douglas Aircraft plant in El Segundo, where a generation of fighter aircraft were spawned. 

Leadership in high performance fighter aircraft will remain to a certain extent in Southern California, since we produce some of the F-35 and some of the F-18. Let's see if the congressional representatives of both parties can endure each other enough to protect that reality.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at Amrep535@sbcglobal.net) –cw





Vol 12 Issue 5

Pub: Jan 17, 2014