by Miller Saltzman
Congressman Scott Peters is currently serving his first term as representative of California’s 52nd district in the United States House of Representatives. He was elected in 2012 to represent most of the coastal regions of San Diego including La Jolla and Coronado, as well as central and inland regions including Poway (district map below). He is running for reelection this year against Carl DeMaio, former San Diego City Council member, in what is being called one of the tightest and most dramatic races in the nation. So far, more than $4.7 million dollars has been spent on the candidates by outside groups. I sat down with Scott at his office recently to talk to him about how to fix Congress and what he’s been working on in D.C.
Miller: Why are you in Congress?
Scott: I very much believe in the American Dream. I’m a child of the middle class. My dad was a minister, and my mom stayed home with my three sisters and me. But we never had any question that I’d be able to get an education. I was in good public schools and got financial aid to go to college. I’ve always owed a lot to the country and been very interested in how it worked and its history. I was always interested in government. I practiced law for 15 years, which I enjoyed, and then I decided to be in local government because I interested in a lot of stuff that was going on in my community. We built a new ballpark downtown, we cleaned up the beaches and bays, [and] we built a lot of infrastructure including highway 56. When Congress broke in 2011 I was really ticked off. I couldn’t believe that people would go off and not come to an agreement. They would let our credit get downgraded for the first time in American history. It really ticked me off. So I thought I’m in my early 50s. I still have a lot of working years left. Why don’t I give it a shot? That’s why I ran. My intention is to make Congress work. We’ll all understand that the courage is coming to the middle and making an agreement, not sitting on the sidelines and yelling at each other and pointing fingers, which we get too much of.
Miller: How’s that going? Can Congress be fixed?
Scott: Slowly. I think it will be fixed. People won’t put up with it like this for very long. The freshman class—about 20 percent of Congress—all got the same message from the election in 2012 which was “start fixing and stop fighting.” The freshmen are generally more oriented that way. We have a group called No Labels which is a group of Republicans and Democrats working to find out where we can agree. Even though there [are] true liberals and true right-wingers it’s been a good forum. Our local delegation—Hunter, Isa, Peters, Vargas, and Davis—have never worked better together. We were able to come together to get $226 million for the border infrastructure project. Duncan Hunter and I worked together in the defense budget to take $120 million away from an earmark in South Carolina where the military didn’t want to spend it and invest it in Poway in some equipment that the Air Force actually wanted. It also happened to support 1,200 jobs. Locally it’s gone well. We just have to keep that up and spread it across Congress.
Miller: If other members of Congress were to ask you for a blueprint on how to do this what would you say?
Scott: It takes a little bit of confidence that people are going to be behind you. The easy thing is to vote no all the time and stand on the sidelines and blame people when stuff goes wrong. But what I hope to do is be able to say this is the profile I took. I believe that by that time I’ll be recognized for that leadership in Washington DC and in San Diego. People will say hey, it worked with Peters, let’s try to do that. But it’s not just me, there are many people who are trying to actually lead and create solutions. I hope that the people will reward them by sending them back.
Miller: What recommendations do you have for aspiring politicians?
Scott: I tell my kids the same thing I tell everyone. Find something that you love and pursue that as a profession. It’s not for everybody. But if you [find it really interesting to try] to think about where solutions can be found—and solutions are found where interests overlap— it can be a very rewarding place to work. I practiced law, I like trying cases through juries. It was really fun. I liked figuring out what my case was and figuring out the weakness of the other guy’s case, and fighting it out in front of a jury which is great. But the better thing I found was when you’re able to sit down with the other side and say listen, this is where we are, this is where you are, shouldn’t we work it out. That’s what local government’s all about too. I was on the city council for eight years, I was the City Council President, and we got through stuff. Whether it was building a ball park and doing all that redevelopment, or coming up with a policy on dog parks for neighborhoods, or building a neighborhood park, it was about listening to everybody and finding out where interests overlapped in a way where you could find the geography of a solution. Some people don’t that. Some people like a lot of logic, some people like analytics. It’s partly that, but if you can’t also hear with your heart and with your gut it’s probably not for you.
Miller: Do you feel like you’re changing the world?
Scott: I feel like I’m doing what I can. I think it’s going pretty well. In local government I really got a kick out of being able to contribute to making an improvement in my community. I feel like I am having an impact. I think that when I go back for my next term I’ll have a significant role in dealing with climate change. I hope I have a significant role in immigration and tax policy and things that would really make a difference to people around the country. And I can have a definite role in linking San Diego to Washington D.C. and that’s always been happening. So I’m at least affecting our world.
Miller: Would you say that the fulfilling aspects of your job overwhelm the irritating or frustrating aspects?
Scott: Well people ask me is it fun. And I say it’s important. There’s a lot of frustration in working in Congress right now because—unbelievably to me—a lot of people go and don’t care if they don’t get something done. I get on a plane from San Diego, California—which has got to be the nicest place in the world to be—and I fly to Washington D.C. which is a fine city with awful weather like sweltering summers or terrible winters that last too long. I leave my wife. I leave the ocean. I don’t do that just because it’s fun travel, I do because I’m trying to get stuff done. Second, it’s a huge honor to serve in Congress. There are only 11,000 people who’ve done it in the nation’s history. I believe it’s something we have to get right, and I can bring the right attitude to make that happen.
Miller: Is that you’re life goal? People try to figure out what’s the meaning of life, why are we here, what are we going to do.
Scott: I think that’s a paralyzing approach to life. What I’ve found that works for me is find something I want to do and then find the next thing I want to do. And if you find something you like to do and get good experience it can lead to other opportunities. For me, I feel that I’m called to be a servant. I’ve had such great opportunities to do that as a community volunteer, as an elected official, as an appointed official, it gives me a role to do what is important to me. It’s very fulfilling in that way. The end goal is I’d like to able to look back and said I’ve made a difference here, there, and everywhere. My advice to young people is have a general sense of what you can do, start doing it, and then see how you feel about it. [When] my daughter was panicked about taking her first job after college [I said] it’s your first job. See if you can get some experience out of it, what you like about it, what you didn’t like about it. It’s very rare that anyone stays with one thing throughout the rest of their lives. That’s how you figure it out.
Miller: What’s your favorite part of your job?
Scott: The best thing is you’re in a position to really have an effect on what happens around you and maybe even put you’re country in a better place. I like that. I take it really seriously. I don’t do it for the title. I do it for the possibility.
Miller: What’s the worst part of your job?
Scott: Travel. Particularly the time change. It’s hard. It takes a lot our of you. The three hour time change and adjusting every week.
Miller: How about the hardest once you’re there in office?
Scott: The culture in San Diego and the culture in D.C. are different. I think it’s a real obstacle for the country to adjust to rapid change. In San Diego we’re very collaborative and cooperative. We’ll sit around a table and talk about how to solve next year’s problems. We don’t really think about what school you went to or who you are. You have a good idea and figure it out. In D.C. it’s very hierarchical. It’s very much about what’s your rank, what’s your title, how long have you been here. If you tell me who you work for maybe I’ll tell you if you have a good idea. In an age of innovation, we’re really at a disadvantage if we try to govern the country that way. We are in competition with a lot of other countries. If we’re going to rise to beat it we’re going to have to take California’s style of approach.
Miller: How can that be done?
Scott: Set an ethic, you set a standard for how you want to treat people and you try to do that. If they deviate you tell them this would have been a better way of handling it. You can work on that over time and we’ll see.
Miller: What have you learned from your first term?
Scott: It is even more political that I thought. I’m surprised that from the moment we started voting, so much of it was political. We’re not governing by leadership, we’re governing by crisis. That’s a surprise to me.
Miller: Can you talk about some of your favorite things you’re working on?
Scott: I’m working on some really great stuff. I’ve focused on three areas. One is the science and innovation economy here. I’m really trying to push funding for basic scientific research like the [National Institute of Health] NIH. We’re trying to get the government out of the way of innovation where it is. An example here is medical devices. We’ve taxed that industry and singled them out for a medical device tax and it’s an excise tax on sales and profits. So it really hurts the new innovators the same time that FDA approvals have been really slow. So devices are available in Europe three to five years earlier than they are for patients here. Even though it might have been invented here. So those jobs are going to go to Europe at some point.
I’m really trying to promote the concept of wireless health, which is a cross between telecom—Qualcomm is our biggest private employer here—and our biotechnology sector which is the second or third lead biotechnology sector in the country. But we’re trying to get Washington to understand that technology and innovation can provide better care at lower cost. It’s a hard thing for them. Washington is where innovation goes to get confused. Supporting that kind of thing—which is a big part of our economy—is one thing I’m working on.
I’m really excited about what we’re doing for veterans. San Diego has the third largest population of veterans in the country, the largest population of homeless veterans. I dropped some support of bills in DC, but really what I’m excited about is what we’ve done here on the ground. Our office and philanthropies like grant makers—million dollar grants like BlueShield, WebMD—and local military leadership have created something called the Military Transition Support Project, which is going to bring all the volunteers and nonprofits we have in the region who support veterans and active duty families to one place. So when that young person gets discharged—15,000 come out of the military each year in San Diego, 7,500 of them stay—they’ll know where to go for a job, job skills training, [and] personal counseling. It’s a unique model because the military is letting us come talk to their personnel while they’re still in uniform so they won’t be strangers to the community when they get out. We’ve been called by Virginia, by Colorado Spring, [and] by other places. They want to know how we’re doing it without a dollar of federal money and without the act of Congress. So I’m excited about that.
The third thing I’m really working on hard is the energy in the military. 20 billion dollars a year of military [funding] goes to innovate advance biofuels. San Diego happens to be a center of research in algae, which can be used for advanced biofuels. So that’s a good marriage. The biggest proponent of solar energy in Washington D.C. wasn’t from the Sierra Club but was the Commandant of the Marines because transporting all that petroleum across the desert is one of the most dangerous things we do. When they blow up, we lose soldiers and marines. As a consequence, we spend a lot of personnel protecting those convoys instead of doing the mission. So they’re powering bunkers with solar panels, small appliances, replacing batteries, they want to do desal. And I’m trying to support all that. Gabby Giffords used to do that before she was forced to leave, and I picked up that portfolio in the Armed Services Committee, and I love that stuff. I’m also the chair of the Climate Taskforce for the Democrats and I hope to pursue that kind of stuff too. I hope that get’s attention. I think people are unduly scared to talk about it and it’s got to be out front.
Miller: Can you talk about what’s going on with student loans in Congress?
Scott: The amount of student debt now in the economy is second only to mortgages. It’s now ahead of credit cards. So what’s happening with people your age as they come out of school is they’re thinking I’m not going to get married, I’m not going to buy a house, I’m not going to start a family, I’m going get in control of some of this debt. It’s become a real drag on the economy. I was just with the realtors today at lunch. They bring up student loans because they know that people aren’t buying houses. I’ve suggested a couple things. One thing is we shouldn’t be charging eight, nine, ten, percent for student loans. The federal government gets its money for three and a half percent, so I have a bill to allow everyone to refinance all student debt down to four percent. That would help right off the bat.
The other thing is I’ve come up with a plan that would allow your employer—when you’re hired—to use pre-tax money to match your repayments. It’ll take kids who are scared about going to college and say listen, there are some ways for you to pay for this. It’s worth it. And obviously, we need to advocate for better state support for public education and at the university level because the costs are so high. In the 30 years since I got out of college the real cost of an education at a public university has gone up 300 percent. It’s hard for a lot of families. If we want our country to compete in a brain-powered economy, we have to deal with the cost of education. Part of that is through loan debt.
Miller: Can you talk more about the status of environmental legislation?
Scott: Unfortunately the Republicans—I have a lot of affection for them because I want a functional government party—but right now they got their head in their sand about climate change. I’m trying to find places where we can agree. One is the military [who] wants to invest in alternative energy, not because they’re tree huggers, but because it’s good for the war fighter. We’re all for the war fighter. We’re all for a strong military. I try to work on that area as an area where I might be able to support change in energy that would be helpful to deal with the climate. A small investment in the context of the military budget could have a big impact on commercial markets.
The other area where there might be some consensus is in resiliency. I’ve got a bill called the STRONG Act. It’s a bipartisan bill with Peter King in New York. It would empower our communities to be ready for extreme weather. He had Hurricane Sandy. And this would provide communities with tools to do prevention because every dollar we spend on prevention you save four dollars on clean up. Whether it’s the insurance company, the small business, or the family. You want it to be ready. That’s another area we could find agreement even though—remarkably—some people still deny that climate change could be the cause of some of this big weather. They don’t understand what’s coming.
The final area is dealing specifically with climate pollutants. There’s not a lot of progress right now. I brought Dr. Ramanathan from UCSD out to D.C. to do a briefing. He did work on what are called short-lived climate pollutants, which are very powerful climate pollutants but they don’t persist—like carbon dioxide lasts for a long time. Methane, black carbon, hydrofluorocarbons are much more powerful in the short run than CO2. But if you get them out of the mix because they don’t persist you could have an immediate impact on it. We’ve dropped a bill on that but it’s not going anywhere in this Congress because we have to get a better, more science based approach.
Miller: The recent decision on the Farm Bill to cut spending for SNAP.
Scott: I voted against that. I thought that in light of the amount of cuts to food stamps, the fact that we didn’t get rick of hardly any of those subsidies for wealthy farmers was wrong. I think SNAP has been an effective program and we should balance the budget in a way that preserves it. There may have to be some cuts, but those were very drastic.
Some responses in this article have been abridged.