By Pat Sherman
U.S. Congressmember Scott Peters (D-52nd) stopped by the La Jolla Community Center on Aug. 26 to update guests on his legislative activities and field questions as part of the center’s Distinguished Speakers Series.
Peters, who served on the San Diego City Council (2000-2008) and was chairman of the Port Commission before being elected to Congress in 2012, touched on the political climate in the nation’s capital and his working relationship with other Congressional leaders in the region (he faces Republican former City Councilman Carl DeMaio this fall in his quest for a second term).
During his talk, Peters touted the San Diego region as a hub for the military, drone development, biotech and clean technologies, noting his role as co-chairman of the newly formed Congressional Algae Caucus and UC San Diego’s role as a leader in research and development of algae-based biofuels.
Peters also highlighted the importance of advocating for increased National Institutes of Health funding for research into diseases such as Ebola being conducted at institutions on the Torrey Pines Mesa.
He said that while running for Congress he was told by researchers at Salk Institute that NIH grant approvals have decreased from about 25 percent to 7 percent in recent years — making it difficult for institutions to recruit the next generation of scientific innovators.
“Young scientists come out of school … and they’re wondering whether the United States is going to fund their scientific research,” he said. “They question whether they should go to Israel, Singapore, Brazil or China … because that’s where they’re making those investments — and that’s something I’m very concerned about. We have to invest in the NIH as a budget priority, just like we would invest in keeping bridges from falling down.”
In terms of immigration reform, Peters said he supports the Staple Act (H.R. 1227), which would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act to make it easier for foreign nationals with advanced degrees in science, technology, math or engineering to establish residency.
“Immigration law is telling us to kick out these really smart people,” he said. “Imagine if (Google co-founder) Sergey Brin had been sent back to Russia. Google would be a Russian company, and we don’t want that.”
Peters also touted local innovation in the field of medical devices, such as ResMed’s CPAP machine, which helps people with sleep apnea, and tools for less invasive back surgery developed by NuVasive.
He said he feels the federal government is “making some big mistakes” by taxing medical device companies on their sales. “A young company starting out is going to have a hard time making profits,” said Peters, who favors repealing the tax. “At the same time, FDA approval for new devices is very slow, so a device that might be made in the United States will be available for patients in Europe three to five years earlier than it is here. That’s going to drive those jobs over to Europe.”
Peters also spoke about his work with retired Navy Rear Admiral Ronne Froman, a longtime homeless advocate and former chief operating officer for both the Red Cross and city of San Diego.
The two of them worked in concert to form the Military Transition Support Project to better connect San Diego Veterans with resources to help make the shift back to civilian life easier.
Of the 15,000 Marines and sailors released from duty each year in San Diego, about half remain here, Peter said.
“San Diego has the third largest population of veterans in the United States,” he said. “We can provide them the support they need to get on their feet and get employed. The great thing about this is that we’re doing it without a dime of federal money and without and act of Congress. … I’m already getting calls from Virginia, Colorado Springs and other military towns who want to follow our model.”
Peters maintained that Congress is still largely broken, though he said he continues to employ the bipartisan approach he championed when he ran for his first term.
Asked how he and other members of Congress seek funds for projects in their areas at a time when “everybody is talking about not spending as much money,” Peters said it is a delicate balancing act — though one in which he has seen some success working with his congressional colleagues in the region, including conservatives Darrell Issa (R-49th) and Duncan Hunter (R-50th), Susan Davis (D-53rd) and left-leaning Juan Vargas (D-51st).
Working with San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jerry Sanders, the five legislators successfully lobbied the president for $226 million to fund the next phase of improvements to the San Ysidro border crossing, where Peters said wait times can sometimes reach four hours, preventing business owners from visiting their Mexican-based companies and decreasing the number of cross-border shipments.
“We are losing millions of dollars in economic activity because of those border waits,” he said.
One guest asked, “Do you see any hope that we can avoid a half-trillion or a trillion-dollar addition to our deficit each year?”
Peter said that of the proposals being floated to manage the debt, he supports “many aspects” of the 2013 Simpson-Bowles plan, for which he was attacked this year in TV ads featuring Bush-era Security Adviser Karl Rove (Rove’s Crossroads GPS spent $705,000 to air the DeMaio-promoting ad in San Diego this year).
“We reduced the rate of increase of veterans benefits for mid-career veterans — we didn’t cut them,” Peters said of the plan. “We said they wouldn’t go up as fast, and we were hammered for doing that. It was the one part of (the plan) that I didn’t like, but we had to have a budget … and I was committed to hitting budget.” (Peters said he later worked to restore the cut.)
“The point of it is, when you take responsible leadership, there’s always going to be something that people don’t like.”
Asked by an attendee with a “poor opinion of the president” for his thoughts about the fellow Democrat and commander-in-chief, Peters maintained he has firmly established his independence as a legislator, and is not in lockstep with the president.
Although Peters said he agrees with many of Obama’s policies, he expressed one concern with the president’s seeming aloofness. “Sometimes I feel like he’s given up on Congress and a lot of us in the freshmen class, and I would like to have more contact with him. I wish that he would wake up tomorrow and decide he’s going to be more engaged with us. I think that would make more (things) more productive,” he said.
However, Peters said Congress and public opinion have not been easy on the president.
“When something goes wrong in foreign policy, I want the people to say, ‘The enemy is not the president. The enemy is Hamas, the enemy is ISIS.’”