When asked, “Where do you get your local news?” Congressman Devin Nunes replied, “I always loved reading the Valley Voice.” As a result, he was enthusiastic about helping launch the newspaper’s inaugural issue with a one-on-one interview.
Devin Nunes was elected to Congress when he was only 30 years old, and even after ten years in Washington still retains his boyish good looks. In its 2010 list of “40 under 40, Time named Rep. Nunes one of the rising stars of American politics. He is one of the Valley’s most senior members of Congress, representing California’s 22nd district, which includes most of Tulare County and parts of Fresno County.
It’s not breaking news that Nunes votes as a no-nonsense fiscal conservative. “My most memorable time in Congress was when I represented my constituents at the funeral of Ronald Reagan,” he said. “He was such an historical figure for our country, and to represent the folks I work for at Ronald Reagan’s funeral is something I’ll never forget.”
Nunes counts former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan as one of his best friends. “The guy has a lot of skill and is totally dedicated. He is an outside-of-the-box thinker.” When presented with the question “Who could beat Hillary?,” he looked slightly irritated that I would bring up an election three years away. But he politely replied that he would support Ryan.
Not wanting to speculate any more about 2016, Nunes said, “We have a lot of work we have to do between now and then,” referring to the multiple challenges facing our country and our state. It’s that work ethic, and his focus on Valley issues, that got him elected to Congress four times.
Nunes thinks past mere fiscal conservatism. He also takes into consideration the feasibility of any project before him. Three of the biggest projects facing the Central Valley right now don’t pass his feasibility test: High Speed Rail (HSR), “Obamacare” and the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP).
The BDCP is a federal and state initiative aimed at restoring and protecting the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ecosystem. (See “Will the BDCP be the Death of the Delta?” article in this issue.) It also attempts to guarantee a stable water supply throughout California. Part of the BDCP includes the construction of two massive, underground, 35-mile tunnels to divert water beneath the Delta to improve delivery to Central and Southern California.
Sound crazy? So is the price: $23 to $30 billion. Part of the money would come from a water bond that is going on the ballot in November 2014; the remainder would be paid by the water contractors.
The BDCP and the water bond are relevant to the Valley because the tunnels would bring in a secure water supply to the Westlands Water district and Friant Kern Canal users. As a result, west side farmers and most southern California Republicans have praised the plan, doing fundraisers for Governor Jerry Brown and Senator Dianne Feinstein, and raising money to ensure the water bond passes.
Nunes doesn’t like the plan.
“Just because you build the tunnels doesn’t mean we can move the water,” he explained. “Why are you going to spend $30 billion on something that is going to sit like the (Tracy) pumps are sitting there now? The same thing could happen to the tunnels.”
He added that we have the capacity right now to move all the water farmers need. The problem is that the pumps at Tracy are turned off. Until the federal and state governments streamline the rules on environmental policy, neither the pumps nor the $30 billion BDCP are going to guarantee a secure water supply to Valley farmers.
The west side farmers’ support for the BDCP, as opposed to Rep. Nunes’ water legislation, HR1837, has caused tension between the two traditionally allied camps.
In the last election, west side farmers overwhelmingly supported Nunes over Democrat Otto Lee of Sunnyvale/Clovis. But to the uninitiated in California’s water wars, it may appear – as Democrats proclaim – that Nunes is a mouthpiece for the Westlands Water District. One only needs to read snippets of the admittedly entertaining, expletive-filled email March 1 email exchange between the Westlands Water District officials and Nunes’ office to understand exactly how far apart the two sides are on water legislation.
“We put through legislation that fixes years of flawed water policy,” said Nunes.
His bill, HR 1837, would have restored about 1.4 million acre-feet of water annually to Valley farmers who lost their supply due to environmentalists. HR 1837, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Water Reliability Act, passed the Republican-controlled House with the help of ten Democrats, including Rep. Jim Costa of Fresno. Nunes felt that this was a huge victory for the people of California. With House passage, the bill was halfway through the legislative process, and could reasonably expect the Senate’s support. However, no lobbying effort for the bill was made by Westlands or other agricultural groups, and the Senate let the bill die.
“The agricultural groups do not hold the Senate accountable,” explained Rep. Nunes. “They are afraid of the Senate. All of the agricultural groups are afraid of upsetting the senators. That is what I have found in my time in office and I understand why – because they threaten people. We know for a fact that senate staff, not the senators themselves, have called up water agencies and threatened them, ‘If you want our help then you are not going to support this (HR1837) legislation.’”
In normal and wet years, Nunes believes that the impressive water infrastructure developed under former Governor Pat Brown, Governor Jerry Brown’s father, while not 100 percent, is sufficient. “In drought years, some land will be idled on the west side,” but, he says, “the current water shortages are government-induced.”
The price tag and infighting over water legislation pales in comparison to that regarding California’s High Speed Rail (HSR). At $69 billion and counting, support on both the left and right has been dropping away.
Californians voted for the High Speed Rail in 2008, but when the vote came for a congressional allocation of federal money, Nunes voted against it. Conceptually, he believes the HSR would work, but that’s where his support ends.
“Bottom line, it will be a huge waste of money because it will never be completed,” he said. “This is like nothing I’ve seen in government. They don’t even have a plan. Normally, the government has to plan things to death, but they don’t even have the specs, such as the size of the tracks, where to put the tracks, the train size, etc.”
Nunes’ sentiments are echoed up and down the state. The Contra Costa Times described the HSR as a semi-fast train to nowhere. An editorial in the Fresno Bee described it as a “high speed train to bankruptcy.”
Of all the issues we discussed, Obamacare gets the prize for being the most expensive. The Bay Delta Conservation Plan and the High Speed Rail combined can’t compete with the cost of Obamacare.
As a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Nunes makes policy on Medicare. His explanation of the money involved was sobering.
“Medicare is trillions of dollars in debt and at some point it is going to be $50 or $60 trillion dollars in debt. That’s bigger than the $17 trillion of our country’s acknowledged debt.” The financial aspect alone is why the Republicans have voted to repeal Obamacare more than 35 times.
“The fatal flaw of health care is that it runs out of Washington, D.C., trying to make guys like me run health care when it should be run on the state level,” Nunes explained. “We could stay on the current program and go broke, or we could try something new that directly provides for the health care needs of the community.”
Nunes put forth his own health care bill and uses Ryan’s plan as a framework. Nunes’ bill, “The Choice in Healthcare Act,” can be accessed through a link on our website.
Nunes does not fit the “party of no” stereotype that the liberal media has labeled Republicans. When he votes no on a major piece of legislation that affects the Valley, he then comes up with his own bill.
“We deal with this situation all of the time in this business, when politicians say, ‘I’m going to go do this,’ and it gets a good headline and then they do not follow up with a bill,” he said. “Something I’ve tried to do is have a plan, have ideas and put it into legislation. I will follow up with a bill.”
In addition to his Choice in Health Care Act, and his water bill HR 1837, Nunes has put forward a transportation bill that uses tax money a little more efficiently than the High Speed Rail. In 2011, he introduced H.R. 761, the “San Joaquin Valley Transportation Enhancement Act,” which would give the state of California the option to redirect federal high-speed rail funds to finance improvements to Highway 99. H.R. 761 was cosponsored by Jeff Denham and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy.
Nunes was then asked about his political aspirations.
“Earlier in my career, did I want to make a move to the Senate? Sure,” he said. “But that is not possible for Republicans in California right now. I can make a difference being on the Ways and Means Committee. I can make a difference more for California, and this area, as a senior member of the House than the very junior member of the Senate. At the end of the day, you have to do what is best for the constituents. So hopefully that’s what guides all politicians.”