New Inland Empire reps reflect on difficult first 60 days in Congress
After the 113th Congress’ historic gridlock over the past two years, legislators vowed this year that things would be different.
But as the recent near-shutdown of the Department of Homeland Security illustrated, things haven’t changed much, if at all.
Rep. Norma Torres, D-Ontario, one of the 70 new members of Congress this term, serves on the House of Representatives’ Homeland Security Committee, and noticed the partisanship weeks ago, shortly after the 114th Congress first convened, even when it came to a committee charged with keeping the country secure.
“It was a very stressful week,” she said Friday. “Having been a 9-1-1 dispatcher ... I (remember) how that money is being used.”
Ultimately, a funding bill that didn’t require rolling back President Barack Obama’s recent actions on immigration made its way through the House of Representatives, but the department came close to running out of money more than once.
Torres found her first go-round with Washington brinkmanship exhausting.
“For me, it created a stress level that I don’t think is good for anybody to have to deal with,” she said. “I hope my colleagues learned the big lesson there that this is no way to govern.”
Fellow freshman Rep. Pete Aguilar, D-Rancho Cucamonga, has a bit sunnier view of the Homeland Security fight and the deal that came out of it.
“I want to judge things based on results,” he said. “And while the DHS discussion was difficult, at the end of the day, we have a funded program, and we have a funded program — on a bipartisan vote — through the end of the year.”
The Inland Empire’s lone veteran member of Congress, Rep. Paul Cook, R-Apple Valley, is equally dismayed at how the 114th Congress’ first 60 days have gone.
“At least we’re not getting duels or caning one member after another,” Cook said. (In 1838, Jonathan Cilley, a congressman from Maine, was killed in a duel with a congressman from Kentucky.)
“You’ve got a lot of egos and a lot of personalities and this is a new Congress,” Cook said. “I wish we could hit the (ground) running, but we come from a lot of different backgrounds. It’s very, very frustrating.”
Torres said the constituents she’s met with since being back in the Inland Empire the past few days have urged her to work with her colleagues and get things done in Washington.
“Today was a perfect example,” she said Friday. “I had a legislative discussion with business leaders in our community, and every single one of them said. ‘What can we do to help the Inland Empire legislators work together and advance our interests?’”
All of the Inland Empire’s congressional delegation have agreed that working together is a good idea, she said, although they haven’t met yet.
Aguilar has heard the same message from his constituents:
“People want Washington to work and they expect me to carry forth that focus,” he said. “I think people understand how difficult and dysfunctional Washington can be.”
“Ironically, the Democrats are using the tactics that the Republicans used to use” when they were in the minority, Cook said. “I want to get these things done and, you know, I get upset with leadership that we go to the 11th hour, the 12th hour. ... At my age, I’m very impatient: ‘Let’s sit down and hammer it out.’ ... I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on” with the freshmen.
For now, Torres is enjoying her break from Washington and its brutal winter weather.
“I was so tired of wearing that coat,” Torres said. “I only have one coat; I haven’t been able to do the shopping and a lot of the stuff I need to do to be prepared for that kind of weather.”
Aguilar agrees about escaping the ice and snow.
“There’s nothing better than being a member from Southern California and coming back to this,” he said.
The father of two small boys, he’s tried to return home every weekend.
Despite the turmoil of recent weeks, Torres said she’ll be ready to go back to work when Congress returns on March 16 and she’s optimistic that things will be better after the Homeland Security showdown.
“My glass will always continue to be half full, otherwise I could not get on that plane to go back to DC,” she said.
Torres doesn’t believe a partisan divide means members of Congress can’t work together.
“I don’t see eye to eye with my husband on a daily basis,” she said, “but I’ve managed to stay married to him for 29 years.”
Still, the Homeland Security showdown started the 114th Congress off on a down note.
“This vote should have happened last December,” Torres said. “It shouldn’t have taken until March to have this vote. I don’t think it was a Democratic or Republican win. I think this was a black mark on our record.”