Sonoma County congressmen prepared for new oversight roles in House

‘There's going to be a new sheriff in town,' said Rep. Jared Huffman.|

2018 Midterms

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The North Coast’s two members of Congress are set to take up new positions of leadership in the House of Representatives, promoting their Democratic Party’s pushback against the Trump administration on such matters as environmental protection, possible corruption in the executive branch and release of the president’s never-seen tax returns.

“There’s going to be a new sheriff in town,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who handily won his fourth term representing the left-leaning North Coast.

Come January, Huffman, a former environmental attorney, will be in the majority for his first time in Congress. As a new subcommittee chairman overseeing oceans and other natural resources, he will be on the frontlines of the Democrats’ attempt to shore up environmental safeguards targeted by the Trump administration.

Huffman and Rep. Mike Thompson, the North Coast’s senior congressman, said their party will embrace its critical role of oversight and investigation - aimed primarily at President Donald Trump and his administration.

“One could make a pretty good case that the swamp needs to be drained,” said Thompson of St. Helena. On Tuesday, he won his 11th House term - just his third under a Democratic majority.

Votes are still being counted, but as of Tuesday the New York Times said Democrats had picked up 27 seats, giving them four more than the 218-seat majority that bestows virtually ironclad control of the House.

“It’s a complete sea change for the Democrats,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist.

If the new chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, makes good on his stated intention to seek Trump’s tax returns, McCuan said he expects defiance from the president that could trigger an impeachment process and still not gain the tax papers.

The Senate is unlikely to impeach the president, and if it did he could leave office and take his secrets with him, McCuan said.

Thompson, a Ways and Means member and 20-year House veteran, said even if Neal gets the Trump tax returns there is “no guarantee” they will be released to the public.

“I think it has a lot to do with what’s in there,” he said, adding that no Democratic House member should expect impeachment is a foregone conclusion.

“We’ve got a job to do and if our job leads to finding something that’s an impeachable offense, then it’s a different story,” Thompson said.

As an example of how high the political stakes were a day after the election, McCuan noted that Trump, in his combative news conference Wednesday, said a partial government shutdown in December was “possible” over his demand for funding to build a Mexican border wall.

The president veered from expressing “a more cooperative tone,” Huffman said, to “doubling down” on his confrontational style. Hours later, Trump announced on Twitter that he had replaced Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a controversial move that many political observers expected to come after the election.

“We still don’t know what a post-midterm President Trump looks like,” Huffman said earlier in the day.

Huffman, said Democrats will engage in a “robust debate” over what directions they will take in restoring Congress’ oversight role.

Multiple alleged conflicts of interest for Trump and other members of his administration need to be addressed, Huffman and Thompson said.

“We’ve had a Congress that had no interest in asking questions about what they’re doing,” Huffman said.

His top priorities are protecting special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election from political interference and reviving the House Intelligence Committee’s probe of the same matter.

Trump’s removal of Sessions renewed concern the president intends to shut down Mueller’s work. In that event, Huffman said he hoped Republicans would make good on their pledges to join Democrats in protecting the special counsel.

A House probe handled by Rep. Adam Schiff of Burbank, likely the new intelligence committee chairman, would be free of the political machinations of the outgoing Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of Tulare, a staunch Trump supporter, McCuan said.

Schiff is intent on putting himself “front and center” for a possible run for higher office, McCuan said.

Huffman said he personally expects to be named chairman of the Water Power and Oceans Subcommittee of the House Natural Resources Committee, putting him in a position to block the Trump administration’s offshore oil drilling program that includes six targeted areas off the California coast.

“We will thwart it in every way we can,” he said.

Richard Charter of Bodega Bay, an anti-drilling veteran, said the election may have saved the state’s treasured coast by installing “a more conservation-oriented House of Representatives.”

Huffman’s new position “should make all the difference in the world,” said Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation.

Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva, who has a lifetime score of 96 percent from the League of Conservation Voters, is expected to take over the Natural Resources Committee, replacing Utah Rep. Rob Bishop, who has a 2 percent lifetime score from the league, which tracks voting on environmental issues.

The biggest change coming in January is the possible return of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco as House speaker, a job she lost after the Republican wave of 2010. If handed back the gavel, she would once again become the most powerful elected woman in U.S. history.

On Wednesday, both the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky offered praise for Pelosi, but some dispute exists over Democrats’ need for fresh faces heading toward the ?2020 election.

Thompson, who is close to Pelosi, said she knows her job and it would “be really hard to make the case she needs to be replaced.”

Acknowledging the benefit of new faces, Thompson said, “I think you just have to be smart as to how you do it and when you do it.”

He and McCuan both noted that Pelosi, 78, has described herself as a “transitional speaker,” bridging the gap between her generation and the party’s rising stars, including California’s Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom and Sen. Kamala Harris.

Whether any bipartisan action will emerge from the House next year remains an open question.

Thompson and Huffman said they sense possibilities for collaboration with Republicans on issues like immigration, infrastructure, health care and middle-class tax relief.

“I would love it if the Republicans would work with us,” said Thompson.

But at the same time, someone needs to play the role of schoolmarm wielding a ruler in the nation’s capital, he said.

“I’m hopeful the Congress works to make sure appropriate behavior is taking place,” Thompson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457.

2018 Midterms

More Midterm Coverage: To see our other midterm election coverage, click here.

Election Results: To see live, updated results for local elections, click here.

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