Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Rep. George Miller: 'Challenges unlike any I have seen

This interview with Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, was conducted by staff writer Lisa Vorderbrueggen.

Q: There is a lot going on in our country as we prepare to swear in a new president. What's going to be different about your 35th year in Congress?

A. As it turns out, a lot of things will be different. Obviously, we will have a historic event taking place with the election of the first African-American president.

We also have the worst economy in my lifetime, and a set of challenges unlike any I have seen in my public life. And that's just opening day. (Laughs.)

Right now, this job is 24-7. But I love the level of involvement that I have with the (incoming) administration and I thrive on the activity. I hate it when it's slow. This is, well, this is a good test. (Laughs.)

Q: How would describe your interaction with the Obama transition team?

A. It's been good.

Again, in my political lifetime, no president has had to deal with this many serious issues before he becomes president.

But in the last two weeks, as he started naming his Cabinet, it has been coming together.

Q: You said the economic recovery package will include money for ailing states. Why should the federal government bail out states?

A. All of the economists have told us we have to provide assistance to the states and local governments.

If you look at state budget shortfalls over the country, there's a $150 billion to $200 Advertisementbillion gap, so we're trying to figure out how to get assistance to the states.

One of the ways to do that is to help the states fund education. Schools are part of the jobs component. We want to give local districts the ability to modernize their schools, rebuild and remodel, all the things that local (taxpayers) have passed in bond.

I will be speaking to (California Assembly Speaker Karen) Bass about money for the state. We don't have final figures, and I am not in a position to say them, but we will try and provide a substantial amount of assistance to local school districts.

Q: The state Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger remain deadlocked over how to close a $40 billion budget deficit. The state will officially run out of cash in a matter of weeks. Are you concerned that a federal bailout will send the wrong message to lawmakers unwilling to make hard decisions?

A. We have no choice.

I (recently) chaired a hearing for the Democratic Policy Committee ... and two conservative economists agreed the American economy is shutting down and the only thing that will save it is government spending.

It will not make up the shortfall for California. They will still have to make hard decisions, but hopefully, it will prevent massive layoffs of teachers. And did you see where the governor proposed a cutback on school days when everything we have read says we need longer school days?

Q: But does it make sense to add to the already high national deficit?

A. Long-term, you have to figure out how to get the deficit down, but right now, if you do nothing, you would probably see 16 million more people unemployed than you would otherwise.

Look, the public just cannot withstand the impacts of massive cuts. And the (California) Republicans who hold to their no-taxes pledge are voting to destroy the economy of this state and dim its future. It is so irresponsible.

Q: Gov. Schwarzenegger has embraced most of the recommendations from an independent panel on how to rescue the ailing Delta, including dams and a controversial canal. As we head into what appears to be a third year of drought in California, are these viable solutions?

A. Canals and dams are 1950s solutions to a 2009 problem.

The Delta is in terrible shape because of really bad policy or because (the state and federal) administration ignored the law or, in some cases, outright criminal obstruction of the law. So, when you see this announcement where Schwarzenegger agreed to treat Delta exports and the environment equally, or well, maybe not quite the same, then you haven't made a lot of progress.

One of the things we are trying to do in the economic recovery act is set aside a major amount of money for water recycling projects. There is much more water to be generated in reuse and recycling than the continued destruction of the Delta.

Q: Some believe a small peripheral canal could work with the right oversight. Is that possible?

A. I want to see the policy first. It's hard to come with the right size canal when you don't have a policy to protect the Delta. They have it backward.

Q: The economy is the No. 1 issue, but do people still ask you about the Iraq war?

A. Yeah, people ask.

After this (interview), I have to stop home and change clothes and go to a funeral for (Army Pfc.) Benjamin Tollefson, the young Concord man who died n Iraq. That's the worst part of the job.

Yeah, people are concerned and they are worried about Afghanistan, and they should be. It's a horrible situation.

But for most people, it's flat out the economy.

Q: Critics say the first half of the $700 billion bailout package didn't do enough for homeowners. What should the government do to help folks struggling to keep their homes?

A. Congress changed the bankruptcy law so that homeowners couldn't file for bankruptcy to save their homes. It's outrageous.

I have been asking for repeal. Without bankruptcy reform, we will not be able to solve the mortgage-foreclosure problem and we can't fix the economy until we fix the mortgage-foreclosure problem.

We are also going to rewrite the rules (for the use of the bailout money) and we are hopeful the Obama administration will comply.

Q: The challenges sound daunting.

A. It's a big agenda. And it goes a lot smoother when you are talking about it rather than doing it. (Laughs.)

But in a way, I feel I have been preparing my whole life for this moment.

I didn't know it would be like this, with a huge economic downturn.

My chair of Education and Labor, chair of the (Democratic Caucus), this relationship with the Speaker (Pelosi), who has brought me in, it's paying off.

I have always believed that this job was one, a privilege, and two, serious business. We owe our country our very best effort.

  • Wet harvest adds to cattle farmers’ woes
  • U.S. government OKs Delta, Northwest merger
  • $9.3 billion water bond proposal goes to lawmakers
  • Delta-based farms can curb water use, study says
  • Overwhelmed firefighters ask governor, lawmakers for help