War, trade policy, immigration, and the need to show voters that government has a role to play and solutions that work were much on Congressman Xavier Becerra’s mind on a recent cab ride to the airport from Capitol Hill. In response to survey results asking for more contact with officeholders representing Northeast Los Angeles, we caught up with the eight-term congressman by phone and started by asking what hope Democrats can have of ever ending the Iraq War.
“We should be very proud of where we’ve gone as Democrats,” Becerra said. “While we certainly haven’t gotten what we wanted—an end to the war and a withdrawal of our troops—we have made it very clear that there’s a line in the sand and that Democrats are far from the position the president and the Republicans have taken. If it were up to us, we would be moving out right now. That message is becoming clear to most of America.”
Besides feeling vindicated for his gut instinct to stand against giving President Bush authority to go war in the original October 2002 vote, Xavier Becerra sees two clear lessons from the way the Iraq occupation has unfolded. “It becomes extremely obvious how crucial it is to have legislative oversight responsibilities,” he says. “For the first time, we’re seeing a president having to respond for his actions. You’re no longer seeing these sole-source contracts going to Halliburton. You don’t hear about all these Abu Graibs and secret renditions of prisoners, because in 2007 Congress restored its responsibility for oversight,” when Democrats took control of both houses.
Second, the press also fell well short during the early years of the war, making “it clear how important it is to have our First Amendment and a free and courageous press,” he says.
Fair trade, not free trade
Turning to a trade policy that chases away well-paid manufacturing jobs, Becerra finds that “all the evidence points to the fact that NAFTA and CAFTA are not the approach to free trade or fair trade. They’re a prescription for increased commerce, but one that concentrates the benefits of that commerce in the hands of very few.”
American workers lose with these types of free trade agreements, as do the developing nations. Not only do they concentrate even more wealth in the hands of the very rich, they prevent developing nations from creating “the capacity to have the embedded institutions that give you rules of order and governance to help develop a middle class that then produces the purchasers who can buy goods produced domestically and imported.”
As an alternative, Becerra suggests looking at the way the European Union was formed. “In creating the European Union, they had countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece that were not as economically well-developed as other European powers. Rather than do what the American Reagan-Bush-Bush model has been on trade—of just opening up the doors, leaving the lights on for exploitation—they made commitments to some of the more developing partners in the European Union and helped them build.”
But progress like that won’t be cheap or quick, according to the Stanford-educated lawmaker. “If I’ve got the numbers right, Europe spent something on the order of a quarter of a trillion dollars over 35- or 40-year period, investing in lesser developed countries, enabling them to level up.” He says. “We, unfortunately, are doing a leveling down, where it’s a race to the bottom in order to compete. We hear the Bush Administration talk as if it wants to help these developing countries so they can have more robust trade with us, but the reality is that we do very little capacity building.”
Doing Something on Immigration
As the son of working-class immigrants who represents a heavily immigrant congressional district that includes Eagle Rock, Highland Park, Mt. Washington, and Koreatown, Becerra has a special interest in solving America’s immigration crisis.
“We need to do something. The worst thing is to have no bill,” he says. “When you see hard-working immigrants being rounded up, separated from their families, when you see the hardships these folks live under, when you see that technology and security is advancing allowing us to know who’s within our borders, we really do need to move forward on a sensible immigration policy so we can have a sensible security policy as well. I don’t think failure is an option.”
Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s right-hand man in running the House and the first Latino member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee—who would favor impeaching both George Bush and Dick Cheney were it not such an impractical diversion from a pressing legislative agenda—Becerra sees a special need for restoring confidence in America’s government.
“Very few people understand well how government is operating and what government is doing,” he says. “The private sector can only do so many things, whether its health care or housing or education issues—and obviously this whole issue of global warming. Government has a role. We need to restore people’s belief that government has good solutions.”
Xavier Becerra represents the 31st Congressional District.