How to stave off recession? San Diego lawmakers weigh in

Portraits of Reps. Darrell Issa, Sara Jacobs, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas
Reps. Darrell Issa, Sara Jacobs, Scott Peters and Juan Vargas gave appraisals of the economy and what to do about it at a congressional luncheon.
(The San Diego Union-Tribune, Associated Press)

Is the U.S. headed toward a recession? Are we already in one? San Diego lawmakers gave varied appraisals of the economy, and what to do about it, at a congressional luncheon hosted by the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce this week.

Reps. Darrell Issa, Scott Peters, Sara Jacobs and Juan Vargas fielded questions from the chamber and attendees on topics including the economy, cross-border commerce and partisan conflict. Rep. Mike Levin, D-San Juan Capistrano, did not attend.

Although an audience poll at the Monday event found an overwhelming majority considered a recession very or extremely likely over the next year and a half, Jacobs, D-San Diego, pushed back, saying key economic indicators including job growth and unemployment levels are headed in the right direction.

“I am a perpetual optimist, and although I do think there are some concerning things we’re seeing right now, I actually think that over a year we’re going to see an increase in growth,” she said. “I’m going to bet on American small businesses and workers, and I think we’re going to be okay.”

Peters, D-San Diego, was “unsure” whether to expect a recession but said a downturn could result from COVID-19’s economic disruption. “We’ve come out of a pandemic that’s a once-in-a-century event. You’ve got to expect that it might be difficult,” he said.

He said those hardships could be relieved by federal spending on energy security, climate action and prescription-drug affordability in Senate Democrats’ compromise inflation-fighting bill, calling it the “Build Back Better Better Act,” referring to a previous, more ambitious but unsuccessful version of the legislation. The new bill includes a fraction of its predecessor’s nearly $2 trillion in spending but has key Senate support.

Vargas, D-San Diego, said he thinks a recession is likely, but he attributed that to normal boom-and-bust economic cycles he expects to resolve quickly.

“I think we’re in a much better situation than we were in 2008, because we don’t have the type of bubble that we had there in the housing industry,” Vargas said. “I don’t think we’re going to go into a deep recession.”

Issa, R-Bonsall, the only Republican in the San Diego delegation, said the U.S. is in a recession already. “The question is, how do we get out of this?” He argued for fixing supply chain problems and encouraging the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates in a controlled manner.

Legislators also discussed lengthy delays for border crossings, which the San Diego Association of Governments has estimated cost the U.S. and Mexico billions of dollars per year.

Vargas said the delegation and local organizations have successfully gained federal funding for border infrastructure but need workers to manage crossings. “What’s been harder is to get the staffing, and we haven’t been able to get through that,” he said.

The members of Congress also addressed the role of child care access in economic recovery, noting the barrier to employment that child care shortages pose.

“If we’re ever really going to get to full workforce participation, we need to make sure that families have access to the child care that meets their needs,” Jacobs said.

She noted that San Diego County received $1 million in federal child care funding last year and an additional $4 million this year, but she said “piecemeal federal funding” won’t ensure access to affordable, high-quality child care without larger, nationwide investments.

The San Diego Union-Tribune is looking to interview families who have struggled to find or pay for child care

Issa argued against federal child care subsidies, maintaining that the costs of such programs could ultimately make care more expensive. Peters said he supports child tax credits that could free up funds for families to pay for child care or other needs.

Audience members also asked whether the partisan vitriol in Congress is as bad as it appears, and how lawmakers can bridge those divisions.

Peters said he thinks Americans are eager for Congress to work together.

“We’ve never solved any great problem — whether it’s going to the moon, or climate change or a pandemic or a world war — with one political party,” he said. “So I have a philosophy: Elect Democrats, but work with everyone.”

Issa acknowledged that partisan conflict in Congress is “as bad as it’s ever been” but said some of that animosity is an act of political theater. There’s still an opportunity to work across the aisle, he said, particularly on local issues.

“There’s a lot people (who) don’t see when the lights go off,” he said. “We do get along, and we do get things done.”