By GUY KOVNER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Phyllis Holloway of Independence, Mo., was horrified that the House of Representatives went home for the holidays last month, letting unemployment benefits expire for 1.3 million jobless workers.
She called her congressman to express her outrage, even though he represents 413,309 constituents on the North Coast of California, half a continent away from her home near the Missouri-Kansas border.
Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman of San Rafael said, in essence: “Me, too, mom.”
Reflecting on his freshman year in the House of Representatives, Huffman said he, like his mother, was offended by House Speaker John Boehner’s comment — “we’ve done our work” — at the close of the least productive year in recent congressional history.
“We’re all angry,” Huffman said during a lengthy interview in his downtown San Rafael office.
Americans’ approval rating of Congress plunged in November to 9 percent, the lowest ever in the Gallup poll’s 39-year history of asking the question.
The first term of the 113th Congress ended a month later with the enactment of 71 bills, the lowest total in decades, leaving the carpeted chambers on Capitol Hill littered with major actions left undone, including an overhaul of immigration laws, a farm/food stamps bill, gun violence prevention and unemployment insurance.
Congress’ most memorable handiwork in 2013 was likely the 16-day government shutdown that cost the economy $24 billion, according to the financial ratings agency Standard & Poor’s.
Huffman, like many pundits, blamed obstructionist Republicans for the lack of action on Capitol Hill, especially in the GOP-controlled House, where Boehner largely caved in to pressure from the arch-conservative tea party faction.
“The (Democratic) minority in the House is virtually powerless,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.
McCuan said he would give the House a grade of D-minus for 2013, upgraded from an F only because of the bi-partisan budget compromise approved in early December on a 332-94 vote, with more than 160 Democrats in favor and more than 60 Republicans opposed.
Huffman, 49, won former Rep. Lynn Woolsey’s seat in 2012, after being termed out of the state Assembly, where he had more than 60 bills approved in six years.
He was under no illusions of his stature as a freshman member of the House’s minority party, but Huffman said he was surprised by the Republicans’ intransigence.
There was, he said, “a complete lack of conciliation in the wake of the 2012 election,” in which President Barack Obama won by 5 million votes and Democrats gained seats in both houses of Congress.
The most conservative Republicans continued “rooting for the government to fail,” Huffman said, and the House voted nine more times last year to repeal or dismantle Obama’s Affordable Care Act, bringing the total to more than 40 purely symbolic votes.
Of the 71 bills enacted by Congress last year, at least 48 were noncontroversial measures approved in the House by voice vote, unanimous consent or under a suspension of rules to facilitate speedy action.
Huffman’s own legislative scorecard was meager. Only three of the 322 measures he co-sponsored became law, including a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
Two of the three bills he introduced were referred to committee, and his lone success — a measure adding 1,255 acres of Mendocino County coastline to the California Coastal National Monument — passed the House in July, but a companion measure stalled in the Senate.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who visited the coastal lands near Point Arena in November, promised that if Congress does not act affirmatively, she will expand the monument by executive action.
“She was unequivocal,” Huffman said.
Huffman said he holds “thin hope” that House Republicans will be more amenable to positive action when their work resumes Tuesday, with unemployment insurance, the immigration overhaul and a farm bill leading the list of legislative needs.
Immigration will be the “big test,” Huffman said, with support from a coalition of business, labor, technology, agriculture and faith groups and some Republicans, including California Reps. David Valadao and Jeff Denham.
“The votes are there to pass it,” Huffman said, but, as always, Boehner controls what comes to a vote in the House.
Huffman expects action on a farm bill, with a compromise on the Senate’s proposed $4 billion cut to food stamps over 10 years and the House’s $40 billion cut coming “close to $9 billion,” he said.
The budget deal showed that Congress is capable of agreement on big issues, McCuan said, but the door will open only briefly in 2014 before “election-year politicking takes over.”
Huffman said it is “probably just as likely” that Republican “pandering to the political base will bring out the worst behaviors.”
In a speech on the House floor in July, Huffman hailed Obama’s announced plan to cut carbon pollution and said that “fighting climate change is the biggest imperative of our time.”
In reality, climate change has been ignored by Congress, Huffman said in the interview, while the Obama administration’s record is mixed between some positive steps and support for a massive boost in oil and natural gas production.
“There is a disconnect,” he said, contending that the administration has “helped usher in a new generation of oil and gas addiction built around fracking.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a method employed by drillers to extract previously unrecoverable oil and natural gas by injecting huge volumes of water mixed with chemicals into the ground. Environmental activists have criticized the practice, which can leave toxic chemicals buried deep underground and potentially pollute the air and groundwater.
A former environmental attorney who has a seat on the House Natural Resources Committee, Huffman is emerging as the “de facto Democratic leader on the environment,” McCuan said.
And with close ties to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and a seat on the influential Budget Committee, Huffman is — despite his short tenure, 389th on the House seniority list — poised to move up in the leadership ranks, McCuan said.
In raising $1.4 million for his first congressional campaign, Huffman demonstrated one of the essentials for political status, the capacity to fill campaign coffers for himself and, as time goes on, for Democrats in more competitive districts.
In the sprawling 2nd District stretching from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, Democrats account for 49 percent of registered voters, with
Republicans and independents tied at
22 percent apiece. The remaining voters are registered as members of smaller parties.
That lopsided advantage gives Huffman, tall, articulate and photogenic, a path to longterm incumbency like Woolsey, who served for 20 years after winning her House seat in 1992.
House incumbents typically have a career lock if they win a second term, and Huffman — unlike Woolsey — could be vulnerable to a challenge from the left this year, McCuan said.
Huffman, appearing taken back by the suggestion, pointed to his House voting score of better than 93 percent, according to the Progressive Punch website, which ranked him 28th in the House, just behind Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, a liberal icon.
Huffman said he may be “mistaken for a moderate” because he attempts to bridge political differences and is not inclined to “light my hair on fire.”
Relentlessly optimistic, Huffman said he also takes exception to the idea that Democrats have no chance of winning the 17 seats they need to take control of the House — and could potentially lose their Senate majority.
The nature of the 2014 election “has yet to unfold,” Huffman said.
Waging war on Obamacare, which he said seems to have been the “Republican mantra” for the past four years, is losing relevance with an estimated 2 million people enrolled for health insurance through state and federal exchanges.
Meanwhile, some economists are giving the Affordable Care Act credit for slowing the rate of Medicare cost inflation, while the economy is slowly expanding, adding jobs, boosting home prices and consumer confidence and slicing away at the federal deficit.
“I think the smartest thing Democrats can do is talk about the economy — where it’s trending,” Huffman said.
The two-year election cycle, with the virtually constant fundraising demands it imposes, are now part of his life, and Huffman said he has no complaints about it.
He’s paid $174,000 yearly as a rank-and-file House member, with 112 scheduled days in session in 2014, spread over
29 weeks of mostly four days each. There is, however, a coast-to-coast commute each work week, and for Huffman a 350-mile-long district to cover when he’s back in California.
The framers of the Constitution intended that House members would be “kept on a short leash,” subject to replacement if they failed to reflect public sentiment, Huffman said.
As men of the 18th century, the framers did not foresee the rise of money and political gerrymandering that gives House incumbents a better than 90 percent re-election rate.
“One of the best things about this job is I get to reapply for it every two years,” Huffman said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.