While Washington is on a break, District 10’s congressman is making the rounds among constituents in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.
On Monday, Rep. Josh Harder, D-Turlock, dropped by the Tracy Press to talk about the legislation and issues he has been involved with so far in his first months in office.
Harder had plenty to say about his top issues — water, jobs and health care — but once again the national discourse abruptly shifted back to gun control in the aftermath of mass shootings over the past two weekends in Gilroy, in El Paso, Texas, and then in Dayton, Ohio.
“It’s horrific what’s happened in the last weekend,” Harder said.
He is among the Democrats in Congress pushing for new federal laws that would require stricter background checks and waiting periods.
“California already has some pretty rigorous gun control laws. You can’t buy assault rifles in California,” Harder said, referring to the type of guns used in recent attacks, including a semiautomatic rifle bought legally in Nevada by the Gilroy gunman. “Imagine if Nevada had the exact same laws California had. The shooter of Gilroy wouldn’t have been able to buy that gun. He certainly wouldn’t have been able to get it without a waiting period because he just went over the border.”
Meanwhile, many Republicans — Harder named Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in particular — have resisted gun control efforts.
“The House has passed — I have voted for and co-sponsored — H.R. 8, a bill to address gun violence,” Harder said. “The House passed that bill. It has been sitting on Mr. McConnell’s desk for months.”
H.R. 8 is similar to existing California law. It would require that any transfer of a firearm between private parties be conducted through a licensed firearms dealer, who must do a background check on the buyer. It passed the House of Representatives on Feb. 27, on a party-line vote of 240-190, with Democrats mostly in favor and Republicans mostly opposed.
Harder added that he finds plenty of bipartisan support for most of the issues he tries to move forward.
“Some of these issues like gun control, it’s tough. The NRA has a stranglehold around a lot of Republican politicians on the issue of guns, and we see that changing,” he said.
Harder believes most Americans would approve of the waiting periods and background checks that H.R. 8 would require.
“Ninety percent of Americans support that bill, in public polling,” he said, “and ultimately we need a system of government where — if popular things don’t get passed, the Senate continues to reject it, we’ve got to win some elections.”
First seven months
Harder described a busy seven months since he took office, which started with his appointment to the House Education and Labor Committee and the House Agriculture Committee, where he works on the issues he feels are most important to his constituents.
“On the agriculture committee, I spend most of my time focused on water issues. On the education committee, I spend most of my time thinking about career education and jobs,” he said.
On water, jobs and health care, he has found that congressional representatives can put aside partisan politics to work on needed legislation.
In a district that Harder sees as close to an even split between Democratic and Republican voters, he aims to reach out to the district as a whole.
“My goal is to stay under the noise as much as possible, stay away from the craziness that happens in Washington, and just stay laser-focused on the needs of our district out here,” he said. “We’ve got some real challenges and we can’t be ignored.”
One of his challenges is convincing others in Washington that California is much bigger than San Francisco and Los Angeles, with the farms and cities in the San Joaquin Valley making up a crucial part of the state’s population and economy.
“There is a lot of common ground on issues that affect communities that look a lot like ours.”
On May 2, Harder introduced H.R. 2473, the Securing Access for the Central Valley and Enhancing Water Resources Act. The legislation could cut regulatory red tape for projects that have wide support, including building and expanding reservoirs and groundwater recharge projects that could benefit Central Valley farms and cities.
“When we unveiled the SAVE Water Resources Act, we had the Sierra Club standing next to the Farm Bureau for the first time in 50 years,” Harder said.
He remarked that, going into office, he was advised to stay clear of water-related politics because there was too much division.
“I took the exact opposite approach and said, this is the most important issue in the district, and we have to be able to find some common ground on it,” he said. “These are groups that are often at each other’s throats, but everybody agrees that something needs to be done. So can’t we just find the 80 percent of stuff that people agree on and move forward on that? And then continue to fight about the 20 percent.”
Harder also pushed for and got $14 million in federal funding for valley water projects, including recycled treated wastewater for Stanislaus County farmers in the Del Puerto Water District, the proposed Del Puerto Canyon Reservoir near Patterson, the proposed Sites Reservoir on the west side of the Sacramento Valley, and expansion of the Los Vaqueros Reservoir near Byron.
“We send 86,000 people over the Altamont Pass every single day, and so the No. 1 priority has got to be bringing more jobs into the valley,” Harder said.
At the same time, he sees an unemployment rate in the San Joaquin Valley that is more than three times that of the Bay Area.
He said the federal government can encourage vocational education to train valley workers and help attract jobs by offering payroll tax breaks to employers who bring jobs to regions with high unemployment.
“We need to do more to incentivize businesses to come,” he said. “We need to actually look at the payroll tax and things like that, but also we need to make sure we’re equipping people for the jobs of tomorrow, and that’s got to be led by our business community that says, ‘These are the skills I need, and by the way, if you train people with these skills, I’m going to hire them.’”
He added that it’s not a problem unique to California.
“There are so many regions that are like ours, that are adjacent to an economic boom but not fully sharing in that enhanced prosperity. You could think about areas all across the country that are 60 miles away — how do you get the jobs to where they’re needed? Well, it has to be a systematic incentive that is based on the job. The payroll tax is a good way to do that.”
Harder supports improved transit between the San Joaquin Valley and the Bay Area, but he still believes job opportunities at home are ultimately the answer to the economic imbalance.
“The short-term solution is better transit,” he said. “The long-term solution is more jobs here.”
Harder said the challenge with health care is to bring more doctors and clinics to the San Joaquin Valley.
“We have half the doctors here per capita than the Bay Area has,” he said. “Folks living paycheck to paycheck have to decide between getting prescription drugs and getting their groceries, so we have to bring down costs and expand the number of health care practitioners.”
Back in February, he co-sponsored H.R. 1384, the “Medicare for All” bill, which has yet to go up for a vote in the house.
“The best part of our health care system, the least broken in a very broken system, is Medicare,” Harder said.
He also understands that it’s likely to be stalled because of partisan politics. All of the 107 Congressional representatives to sign onto the bill are Democrats, but he’s confident that discussions of the bill could still be a step forward for new federal health care policies.
“I do think there’s a lot we can agree on in the next 18 months, like the cost of prescription drugs and the lack of doctors here in the valley. Those are things that I can actually see some progress on.”
He emphasized that health care for veterans is one of his priorities and he looks forward to a new veterans health clinic in French Camp near San Joaquin General Hospital, something that is overdue for veterans who have had to travel to Palo Alto for care.