Democrat Harley Rouda has represented the 48th District in Congress for a little over six months now. But when the vanquisher of 15-term Republican/Friend of Putin Dana Rohrabacher asked to chat about what he’s learned in that time, I couldn’t pass up the chance. Elected on a platform of addressing climate change, healthcare, gun reform, and getting money out of politics, Rouda was at first hesitant to call for an impeachment inquiry on President Donald Trump. But on June 27, after it became clear that Trump and the White House wouldn’t be complying with congressional subpoenas, Rouda announced that impeachment was the way to go.
“For me, it was eyes watering up, a solemn moment,” Rouda told Politico. “For me, the interpretation of the Constitution should not be driven by who’s in office or polling or political winds. I’m disappointed that there are members here who interpret the Constitution differently based on who’s in office.”
That naivete took me aback when I first read it–Republicans, especially in Orange County, rarely argue in good faith these days–but Rouda doubled down on that belief when I asked him to describe the biggest lesson he’s learned so far in Congress.
“Most of what I’ve seen is what I expected, “ he said. “But there are two lessons, one negative and one positive. The negative one is that I’m surprised by how the oath we all took to the Constitution is framed based on who’s in office. I’m disappointed that so few Republicans are willing to speak out on the President. On the more positive side, we have a lot of evening events in DC, and usually when you’re heading home at 8, 9, 10 at night, you can see the Capitol lit up. It’s very humbling to be reminded that just 12,000 people have served in the peoples’ House. In spite of the rancor and infighting you see, those moments are poignant and real reminders that we’re working for the people.”
For a first-term Representative, Rouda has a fair amount of power. He chairs the Oversight and Reform Committee’s Environmental Subcommittee, which gives him both a gavel and subpoena powers. His main focus now, he told me, is climate change.
“We’re using that committee to do three phases of hearings on climate change, focusing on the past, present, and future,” he said. “I’m excited that we have an opportunity to help shine a light on this challenge, on what I consider the most important issue in the world.”
Rouda said he’s also working on a new bill to make it easier for local communities to take action on the effects of climate change–dealing with rising sea levels, for instance. The Coastal Communities Adaptation Act assists “research at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) into improved buildings and structures that account for extreme weather” as well as provides “grant funding for coastal communities that need to adapt to a changing climate,” according to Rouda’s office.
Though Democrats control the House of Representatives, Rouda still talked about the importance of bipartisanship. In fact, he said bipartisanship in the House is going “extremely well.” The Republican-controlled Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has deemed himself the “Grim Reaper” for killing so much legislation passed by the House, is another story.
“We’ve had 274 pieces of legislation passed, but Mitch McConnell in the Senate has acted on less than 15 percent of those bills,” Rouda said. “The House is getting things done, but McConnell is truly living up to being the Grim Reaper. It’s frustrating, but it is getting better.”
“They used to only pass five percent of the bills,” Rouda said. “Why did it take months to pass the [9/11 victims fund bill that comedian Jon Stewart lobbied for]? There’s no rational explanation, other than that McConnell simply doesn’t care. That is very frustrating. When you have bipartisan support for good legislation, why does it take so long to do the right thing?”
There’s that naivete again. But while there’s not a lot of substantive difference between five and 15 percent, it is progress. So why is McConnell passing more bills?
“He’s getting extreme pressure from members on the Republican side,” Rouda said. “The voting public recognizes that Mitch McConnell isn’t doing his job. Republicans are feeling the heat.”
Still, the heat wasn’t enough to get McConnell–a longtime foe of all things campaign finance reform–to budge on HR1, which went a long way to getting big money out of politics. I asked Rouda how much time he spent each day trying to raise campaign money.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “That’s why I co-sponsored HR1, which addresses that issue. Unfortunately that has not been taken up by the Senate.”
Climate change, bipartisanship, campaign finance reform–all this seemed so unlike Rohrabacher that I couldn’t resist asking Rouda if he was making a conscious decision to simply do the opposite of whatever his predecessor had or might do.
“Yes,” Rouda said, before laughing. “I’m trying to work as hard as I can because our district has been neglected for so long,” he said. “I keep hearing that people can’t believe I’m out, learning more and more about the issues facing our small businesses, charitable organizations, academia. I’ve had two major meetings with stakeholders in the district on infrastructure needs. I’ve been told repeatedly that this hasn’t happened in 30 years. These meetings sound common-sensical to me, but apparently they’re novel.”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.