Jared Huffman

Last week local Congressman Jared Huffman stopped by to talk about what he’s been doing in Congress over the last few months, how Congress has changed since Democrats took over after the midterm election and what he thinks about the crowded slate of Democratic contenders for president.

Huffman is probably best known for his strong environmental interests as a legislator. Before going into politics, he was an environmental lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council, where he specialized in California water issues. He served on his local water board in Marin for 12 years, before becoming a member of the California State Assembly, where he served for six years, part of that as chairperson of the Water, Parks and Wildlife committee.

“There’s been a thread of water through a lot of my work,” he said. “Water, fisheries, environmental policy, natural resources — these are all issues I care a lot about.”

Fortunately for Huffman, environmental issues are also a central concern for large numbers of people in his district, California’s 2nd congressional district, which stretches from Marin to the Oregon Coast. Huffman has represented the 2nd District in Congress without any serious challengers, since 2013.

It’s a whole new job under a Democratic majority

In January of this year, Huffman became chairperson of the Water, Oceans and Wildlife Subcommittee, a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources. In February, he was appointed to the newly formed Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.

“Honestly, it’s only been a few months, but it feels like I have a totally different job,” he said, speaking of his chairmanship of the Water, Oceans and Wildlife subcommittee. “I decide what hearings we’re going to have, what witnesses we’re going to call, what issues we’re going to prioritize. It’s 100 percent more work, but it’s really gratifying because we’re tackling things we haven’t been allowed to talk about for the last six years.

“For instance, we’ve had our first hearings on climate change,” he said. “We’re calling witnesses that are subject matter experts and some of the top scientists working on this issue. It’s a huge change from the last six years of climate denial and ridicule under the Republican majority.”

Under the new Democratic majority, Huffman said the pendulum in Congress has swung sharply in his direction, which, despite its charms, also has a downside, hardening the rigid partisanship that has made Congress such a difficult place to work for the last decade.

“Congress is a tyranny of the majority,” Huffman said, noting that the majority holds sway “much more so than my six years in the state legislature, where I was part of a large majority on the Democratic side but the rules and institutional culture were far less majoritarian. I’m reaching out and still trying to find common ground and working opportunities across the aisle, but the institution is pretty hardwired for partisanship.”

Legislative actions

Huffman has introduced several pieces of legislation so far this year, including a ban on offshore drilling and a plan to fund special education.

Offshore drilling

It will surprise no one to learn that Huffman is a foe of offshore drilling.

“I want to end it,” he said. “This is a part of my fundamental opposition to fossil fuel development. I think the big challenge of our time is to radically reduce our fossil fuel reliance. I am essentially opposed to all types of fossil fuel development, including new offshore development off the California coast and the Arctic.”

“There’s going to be a hearing next week on a bill I’m doing. Each year in Congress, I’ve introduced a bill permanently banning offshore drilling on the West Coast. This year we’re going to combine that with a bill to ban offshore drilling off the Atlantic Coast. The Trump administration has proposed new drilling there as well, and it’s deeply unpopular. We have allies in the fight now from places like South Carolina, Florida, Virginia and New Jersey. We’ve joined forces, and we’ll have a bill that covers both coasts. I’m cautiously optimistic that we can pass it out of the House of Representatives. What happens in the Senate, you never know.”

On special education funding

At the end of March, Huffman joined a bipartisan group of legislators in introducing the IDEA Full Funding Act, which requires Congress to fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the landmark special education law, which was passed in 1975.

As a part of that original legislation, the federal government committed to pay 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure for special education. However, that pledge has never been met, and current funding is at 14.7 percent.  The IDEA Full Funding Act would require regular increases in federal IDEA spending to reach that 40 percent.

“For all the things we talk about at the federal level about education, this is easily the most impactful thing that the government can do — just keep that promise,” Huffman said.

Huffman has a long-standing interest in special education, in part because he is a special education parent.

“The federal government’s failure to keep its promise hurts schools and school districts in huge ways,” Huffman said. “That money has to be made up locally, and everything else we talk about — teacher pay, class size, art and music and everything else we want schools to do but they never seem to have enough money — everything else gets easier if the federal government just keeps its promise and sends those dollars.”

Huffman is pleased that he has so many Republican co-sponsors on this bill.

“That’s the other great thing about this issue. It’s not a partisan issue. It’s not radicalized along party lines, so we can work together on this,” he said.

On the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act

Regarding an issue closer to home, Huffman reintroduced the Lytton Rancheria Homelands Act, a bill to take lands owned by the Lytton Rancheria near Windsor into trust. The bill would allow the tribe to develop its large parcel on Windsor’s western border but would permanently prohibit the tribe from using those lands or other land in Sonoma County for casino gaming. (It doesn’t ban them from developing the property near Windsor as a large resort, however, which is what some Windsor-ites are concerned about.)

Huffman said his bill passed the House of Representatives last week and is now off to the Senate.

“I think I can say that it’s expected to pass,” he said. “Outside of a few dozen people in Windsor for whom this has become a cause of great outrage, it’s not a controversial thing.”

“Most people look at this, and they see a negotiated agreement between all the local governments and the tribe. They see that not a single elected official is on record as opposing it. They see the fact that it doesn’t include gaming — we’ve strengthened the provisions to make it clear that we’re not putting a casino in the middle of wine country. I think Friends of Windsor, which opposes this bill, are outliers. I think most of the community is pretty comfortable with this.”

On the presidential elections

Huffman said he’ll probably make an endorsement for president, but he’s not ready to commit yet.

“In a crowded field like this, people are going to be attracted to lots of different candidates, and my feeling is that’s a good problem to have because I think we have a lot of talented and good people,” he said.

He does have some favorites, however.

  • Beto O’Rourke: “It’s no secret that Beto O’Rourke is a close personal friend of mine. He was my housemate for three years in Washington. I’m really close to Beto and his family, and I’m really excited to see him doing this. I think he has a lot to offer.”
  • Jay Inslee: “I love the focus on climate change that Jay Inslee is bringing. We’ve never seen anything quite like that, someone literally running for president almost entirely on the issue of climate change. It’s exciting.”
  • Elizabeth Warren: “I think Elizabeth Warren is bringing this really deep, substantive expertise to a bunch of issues that probably others wouldn’t even be talking about if you didn’t have Prof. Elizabeth Warren in the field with all of her big ideas and authentic passion on protecting consumers and building a more equitable economy.”
  • Kamala Harris: “Kamala Harris is also a friend and someone I’ve worked closely with for a number of years, and I think she is obviously bringing a very dynamic campaign that might catch fire.”

Huffman said he thinks the much-vaunted split in the Democratic Party between centrists and the left is exaggerated.

“I think in some ways it’s been overstated. If you just look at the announced candidates so far, for example, there aren’t dramatic differences … I think Democrats are pretty unified. The differences tend to be over ‘Do you go directly to Medicare for All or do you get there incrementally?’ But I don’t think that’s a huge civil war within the party. I think if anything it shows you how the Progressive ideal of universal coverage has now gained universal traction.

“Everybody’s talking about climate change. Everybody’s against these Republican tax cuts. There’s a lot of commonality and a lot of talent, and I hope whoever ends up on top we’ll all be able to get behind,” he said.

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