You may recall that a strange thing happened last November: an incumbent Congressman from California’s “safe” 11th District, Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, lost his seat to Jerry McNerney
, a political novice. The Pombo family made its fortune through ranching and land sales (you still see the name on billboards selling tract homes out there); McNerney is a wind-power executive with a background as a national security contractor. A largely grass-roots effort brought McNerney into power; the Democrats at Boalt went precinct walking to help in this cause.
So how have McNerney’s first six weeks in Congress shaped up?Energy
In January McNerney gave dull-sounding but competent testimony on the House floor on the need to scale back tax breaks for domestic oil producers and support renewable energy. This is good common sense, although the high price of oil practically makes it economically viable to fuel your car with cabbage. McNerney has co-sponsored legislation
supporting plug-in hybrid vehicles and a cap-and-trade system. Seems he isn’t intimidated by curmudgeons telling him it’s a pipe dream.
The one caution I have is that as a recent wind power executive, McNerney should walk the line about making sure his incentives don’t seem to line the pockets of himself or his buddies, especially given all the wind he’s created about overhauling ethics rules. I know, the Republicans have not exactly done this either, but if we want clean government, it should start at home.
McNerney’s district was once a world-leader in wind power generation; now California has been eclipsed by Europe and the mid-west. About the only thing the creaking windmills at Fayette along the Altamont Pass are still efficient at is chopping up endangered birds, which brings us to…Endangered Species Act
Here is where McNerney can make one of his greatest contributions: don’t be Pombo. Pombo was out to eviscerate the Endangered Species Act or require 100% compensation for diminutions in value. I think it’s not unreasonable to provide some compensation to those whose property is sacrificed to the public goods of a clean environment and biodiversity. However, extinct is forever, even for the modest fairy shrimp of the vernal pools that dot the 11th District. Pombo also proposed legislation to sell large portions of the National Park Service. Bad idea. The jury is out on McNerney; let’s hope he sets a better balance.Alternate Water Sources
McNerney co-sponsored, with my Congresswoman, Ellen Tauscher (10th District, D-Alamo), a $50m increase in Federal Water Pollution Control Act to fund a pilot program allowing for development of alternate water sources. This is probably a good idea, especially in the Greater Bay Area, where housing and farming needs are at odds over how to use water. Thinking creatively about water is sensible, since all it could take is one dry winter and then we’d really be hosed. Focusing on energy only as a resource subject to shortages would be short-sighted.
However, McNerney should also work to get Federal funding to improve the levees of the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, parts of which are in his district. It is well-known that a good El Nino storm or two could turn Sacramento into the next New Orleans.Iraq
McNerney has co-sponsored Rep. Murtha’s H. Res. 18 to redeploy troops from Iraq. I won’t editorialize, but McNerney was critical of the Iraq war during his campaign, so he seems to be following the will of his constituents. His son enlisted in the military after 9/11.The “100 Hours” Bills
McNerney co-sponsored virtually all of the Democrats’ raft of bills in the new Congress (minimum wage, lower student loans, stem-cell research, lower prescription drug prices, etc.).Summary
McNerney is showing that his fortes are in energy and natural resources. It’s too early to get a comprehensive view of whether he will be an effective legislator (i.e. can he work in a bipartisan manner? can he compromise for the sake of the bigger picture?). For now, he should get the benefit of the doubt.
McNerney’s victory may also suggest trends:
-the high water mark of the post-Kelo
property rights movements; McNerney’s defeat of Pombo coincided with voters’ rejection of Prop. 90, which concerned compensation for takings.
-the ascendancy of the middle, a belt of moderate districts separating a liberal urban core from a conservative rural periphery.
-a move towards contested elections. Lord, wouldn’t that be a welcome change in this state?