I had a chance to catch up with Congressman Jeff Denham last month while he was in the Bay Area. He is one of the hardest working Members of Congress – a straight talker who is an almond farmer, veteran, and family man.
Congressman Denham is passionate about America’s veterans, largely because his public service career began in the U.S. Air Force. He served 16 years between active duty and the reserves, fighting for us in Operation Desert Storm (Iraq) and Operation Restore Hope (Somalia).
He represents and area with a large farm worker population. Denham is a Republican Member of Congress elected in a Democrat district. It’s easy to see why he is so well liked by his constituents, regardless of party.
When Congress returns in September, the major issue will be military strikes against Syria. I asked the Congressman his views on this issue, critical to us as we approach the anniversary of 9/11.
“For over two years the world has watched with horror the ongoing repression of the Syrian people by its own government and the brutality on its citizens has plunged the country into a civil war. The shock of the violence – on a scale many of us wished to believe could not exist in this day and age – has caused the wholesale fragmentation of Syrian society and turned the country into a vicious cauldron of communal killing and reprisal.
Right now, it is not clear that the appropriate reaction is a military strike led by the United States. With our Armed Forces stretched thin, I am extremely reluctant to see our nation become involved in such a complex and uncertain conflict without further debate and discussion in Congress. So far, U.S. participation has been limited to humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees and some material support for anti-regime forces not affiliated with terrorist movements.”
How has your service as a veteran prepared you for this critical discussion on our national security? We all know that right now, Americans are fearful of getting involved in Syria without a well thought out strategic plan of action.
“As a veteran who has deployed twice overseas to combat zones, I understand that such an authorization should not be given lightly, without a clear understanding of our objectives as well as the resources and strategy necessary to achieve those ends,” said Congressman Denham.
“So far, the President has not yet shared his view on the requirements for an operation in Syria or his vision of what the end result of that operation would be. While I will give full consideration to any request from the President in Syria, deliberations cannot take place in an absence of this information.
The men and women of our armed forces are the ones who will bear the risk. I’m asking my constituents and all Americans to join me in praying for those who have chosen to serve and their families.”
I asked Congressman Denham his views on immigration reform and whether he thought something would pass the Congress that will fix the broken system we have today.
The idea of comprehensive immigration reform is difficult for most conservatives to stomach but it’s clear that we must do something that will have an impact on illegal immigration.
“The framework is there for reform. Anything that touches all areas of an issue this broad is tough to get through,” said the Congressman. “I believe border security must be our first priority. Then there’s internal security to ensure that employers are following the rules and paying taxes and fees required.”
Congressman Denham mentioned the failure of the current system of enforcement of expired work visas.
“We know that the current VISA system is not working and we must address that because 40% of foreigners are here on expired VISAs.”
That seemed a startling figure to me – so I looked it up. The Wall Street Journal identified the gravity of this problem in this report in February. There has been a long-standing problem with immigration enforcement—identifying foreigners who fail to go home when their visas expires.
This problem is amplified when we look at our U.S. economy and areas where we have worker shortages.
“It’s a broken system that is closed to people from around the world who want to contribute to greatness of America – we have a doctor shortage and we are always looking for skilled workers in the technology and biotechnology fields,” said the Congressman.
“Naturally, there is concern from left and right on how to fix the guest worker program. We must have a process in place that works. And we need farm workers as well. My state of California is the largest agriculture community in the world as a region.”
U.S. ENERGY INDEPENDENCE
Congressman Denham addressed energy and the fact that California could play a more leading role in energy independence. I asked what we could do in California that would make the United States less dependent on foreign oil.
“We’re seeing that some states are continuing to expand their own energy independence – states like North Dakota. My home State of California has largest shale reserve in the nation as well as huge national gas reserve,” said Denham.
California could help make us energy independent by clean, safe energy exploration. We not only have new exploration technology but we have new technology for extraction. A great example is the Tranquillon Ridge project near Santa Barbara, which is among the most talked about and now has environmentalists supporting it.”
So, then, with these opportunities, what’s the problem?
“Ultimately this is about political will – you need to have a Governor that is willing to define California’s economic landscape and what our energy and water policies are going to be. We could invest in great infrastructure or we can continue to struggle along as we have in the past. Governor Brown is popular and could follow through on this if he wanted.”
Since I worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture during Ronald Reagan’s second term in 1985-1986, I remembered buy-out and subsidy programs which seemed to cost the taxpayers too much. We all have such deep respect for our family farmers, but like any industry, agri-business has changed with the influx of new technology.
What improvements have come as a result of the Farm Bill the U.S. House passed earlier this summer?
“The farm piece is definitely supportable by the President and the U.S. Senate. It cuts direct payments and there is an offset with rise of costs of other farm subsidies. The poultry, dairy, and livestock industries are prevalent in California and we want these commodities to operate on a competitive basis,” said Congressman Denham.
“The challenge with the Farm Bill is the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a.k.a., the Food Stamp Program). We have to address this in Conference Committee between both Houses of Congress. It is critical that we cut the fraud and waste out there and make sure that the program is stable for those who truly need it. It’s on the welfare side of things where the biggest fight exists.”
You’ve been well known as a conservative Republican, yet you are able to work with the Democrats to get things accomplished in Congress. Five or ten years from now, what would you see as your most notable achievement?
“Probably the things I’m most proud of to date are things which have had a major impact on our returning veterans – things like changing policies at the Defense Department and the VA so veterans can get back to work immediately,” said Congressman Denham.
“I’ve also been at the forefront of efforts to cut waste in government and sell public resources to save taxpayers money.
“Overall, I want my legacy to be in improving our infrastructure in California. I want to know that we have water storage for the next 50 years. It’s very possible to do this, but even more essential to our farms and agri-businesses. It has to be done. In politics, it’s timing. We need to focus on things like the Delta infrastructure and greater water storage capacity. These are not just CA needs, they are America’s needs.”
It’s clear that the United States could use a few more good men and women who are young, strong leaders. They work hard and aren’t afraid to tell it like it is. I’m glad to call Congressman Denham a friend and I’m so proud he represents California.
Photo Credits: Congressman Jeff Denham on Flickr, with permission