Congressional Chat

Huffman talks civility in the Trump era


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Editor's Note: The following are excerpts from an interview with North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, who sat down with the North Coast Journal in his Eureka field office on Jan. 15 for a brief discussion between meetings with constituents and his attendance at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

NCJ: Overall decorum and civil debate are considered by many to be cornerstones of the legislative process, how do members of Congress uphold this principle, or can they and or should they, considering the current divisive political climate?

Huffman: We all should try to do our best to model civil discourse and when you are a member of Congress, the rules of decorum are important and it's something I try to think about. ... But it should never become a pretext for inaction or a pretext for being complicit in injustice. So I think there are lots of considerations and I think there are times when the rules of decorum, even, have to give way to principled activism.

So I'm thinking of the time I joined (Georgia Congressman) John Lewis and many of my colleagues for a sit-in on the House floor and that was a breach of house rules, and that's not something that we took lightly and that's not something that you'd want to see happen every day. But when thousands of Americans are dying from gun violence and Congress refuses to take any action because it is compromised by the gun lobby, there does come a point where, as John Lewis would say, as probably MLK, his contemporary, would have said — and here we are on Martin Luther King Day talking about it — "You need to get in good trouble."

So how you do it and maintain your dignity and civility, even as you occasionally have to engage in civil disobedience, is the key. I don't think anyone would have ever said the march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge in Selma was undignified. It was the height of dignity. It was against the law because they were told not to do it, but they did the right thing.

NCJ: Affordable healthcare is obviously a major concern for most Americans and especially those who live in rural areas like Humboldt County. Where do you see the ACA (Affordable Care Act or Obamacare) going forward?

Huffman: I think there will be some fallout from the loss of the individual mandate, even in California. ... The state, theoretically, could backfill with a state individual mandate but because that involves tax policy, it would require a two-thirds vote in Sacramento, so unlikely.

So probably you see some erosion in participation over the next couple of years in the individual markets and the insidious part of that is it will be the youngest and the healthiest people who decide not to get insured and that will put pressure on premiums. So even in California, where things are going relatively well, I just met with the head of Covered California last week on this and he is projecting some significant increases in the next year or two.

NCJ: The Klamath Dams. It looks like those are still coming down, that those are still on track to come down?

Huffman: We need to be. It's a huge priority. It's an incredible opportunity. It's ambitious and there are lots of ways in which it could fall off schedule or experience technical complications, but I'm committed to keeping it on track in whatever way I can.

NCJ: Speaking of big projects, Last Chance Grade. Just about anything that could be a problem for a project like this, is a problem.

Huffman: We're waiting right now for the federal technical studies to tell us the viability of these alternate routes. That's a really important juncture for this process. So some of these routes may fall out. We need to know, either way, the technical viability of these various alternatives and then we can get to work on the difficult job of finding consensus and funding, and trying to move ahead.

NCJ: Because the days of individual Congress members being able to author legislation that pay for particular project are over.

Huffman: Even in the heyday of earmarks, nobody was going to produce an $800 million earmark. That would probably have raised eyebrows and we're a long way from the heyday of earmarks. I'm not saying there may not be a role for legislation as part of all of this going forward. We are looking creatively at some things we may be able to do but we want to be responsible in managing expectations, and it's really not possible for me to just produce a federal law that provides $800 million to solve this problem.

NCJ: So we'll be looking at federal highway funds?

Huffman: We hope that will be a significant part of the solution, but this will take a real team effort involving state funding and state agencies. The whole region is probably going to have to be part of the solution as well. Private interests. Others. I mean, that's why we have this great stakeholder process that involves everyone around the table.

NCJ: It seems like in the last year or so, maybe, you've become much more active on Twitter and social media.

Huffman: Yeah, I probably have been. Just sort of my own personal therapy. I get to vent on Facebook and Twitter from time to time. But no, there's also a more serious piece to that and that is keeping my constituents informed of some consequential issues that are in play in Washington. ... We are living in a very, very significant moment and people are engaged, and people are hungry for information. They want to know what I'm doing. They want to know what I'm thinking. So my social media, you know, helps me do some of that. And, it has taken on a little bit of a sharper tone in the last year and I'm not thrilled about that.

Believe it or not, by nature, I'm a fairly pragmatic problem solver in the work I do as a politician and as a lawmaker. The climate has fundamentally shifted under Donald Trump and under this Congress. So it's just a totally different game. It's a totally different context that we are operating in. And I can't really pretend otherwise.

NCJ: Did Trump have some effect ... his ability to use social media successfully?

Huffman: I don't think it was just that. I think it's everything he's doing. All of the wedge politics, all of the culture wars, all of the kleptocracy, the handing over of the reins of government to special interests, the dangerous actions that he has taken on the world stage. All of it together have created this really alarming political climate and ... I can't just report back to my constituents that everything is fine, that I'm making nice back in Washington and we're going to somehow, miraculously, find a bipartisan path through all of this chaos. ... That option has almost been taken off the table by Donald Trump and this Congress, and the truth is we're just going to have to fight to take our country back. And when we do, we'll get back to good governing and much better civility and decorum and pragmatism and, I think, all of the things that all of us would like to see in our government.



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