[This post was updated Tuesday. See below.]
Rep. Jackie Speier, who is now in Denver for the Democratic National Convention, paid a visit to the Times last week to provide an update on her first year in Washington.
Speier touched on several topics over the course of about 45 minutes, starting with the first federal bill she’s authored, an attempt to lower America’s oil consumption by setting a national speed limit of 60 mph in urban regions and 65 mph in rural areas.
The legislation has sparked a bit of an outcry, which is understandable, since Americans love their cars and love to drive fast. Great numbers of U.S. citizens enjoy watching automobiles drive in a circle for hours, and they’ll pay large sums and absorb near-fatal doses of sunlight to do it.
But Speier said she’s not deterred by the criticism.
“I’m not there to make friends,” she said. “I’m there to do the people’s work.”
Speier said reducing oil consumption is the sort of thing that’s missing right now from the national debate about energy, with Republicans screaming for offshore oil drilling that won’t yield its miniscule benefits for more than a decade and Democrats pushing for alternative-energy incentives.
Speier acknowledged that it’s unlikely H.R. 6458 will get a hearing during the September congressional session, meaning the bill may not get off the ground until next year.
In case you were wondering, all of Highway 101 from San Jose to San Francisco would be a 60 mph zone, according to federal guidelines for defining urban and rural areas.
Speier also offered her take on a subject that’s had many liberals on edge for weeks: Barack Obama’s recent inability or unwillingness to counter the relentless attacks from his Republican opponent’s newly dirty campaign.
(As Paul Krugman of the New York Times wrote on Monday, “many Democrats have had the sick feeling that once again their candidate brought a knife to a gunfight.”)
It had been one bad news cycle after another for Obama during the month of August, at least until last week when John McCain forgot how many houses he and his wife own and cable TV news shows began obsessing about Obama’s choice for vice president.
But Speier said she’s confident that Obama will pull out of it. Obama is a quick study, she said, and he’s more aggressive in responding to political attacks than John Kerry was in 2004.
“The truth is the public loves a competition,” Speier said of the presidential race. “They want it to be close right now.”
(The Insider happens to agree with this assessment, but only if you substitute the word “media” for the word “public.”)
“They’re swiftboating” Obama, Speier said of the McCain campaign, which is now being run by political operatives who learned their trade at the hooves, er, feet, of Karl Rove.
The common perception in 2004 was that Kerry’s biggest strength was his military experience, which could protect him from Republican smears suggesting he hated America and despised the troops.
Obama’s biggest strength is his personal magnetism, which makes McCain look creaky and creepy by comparison, so the McCain team has launched its “celebrity” ads to turn Obama’s star power against him, Speier said.
“You take someone’s absolute strength and try to wrap it around their neck and choke them,” said Speier.
Speier said Obama needs to frame the election around the Supreme Court, since the next president will choose as many as two or three justices. The choices to replace the justices who are on the verge of retirement will have a major impact for “the rest of this century,” Speier said.
A few other observations from the interview.
– Regarding an account we’d heard indicating that Speier has been surprised by the arduousness of her commute to and from Washington, Speier confirmed that, especially in the first months, the travel has been hard.
When Congress is in session, Speier typically flies to Washington first thing Monday morning and returns Friday on a late afternoon flight so she can spend the weekends with her family.
“My body doesn’t know what time zone it’s in anymore,” she said.
But she said her sapping schedule has become easier to take with her recent committee assignments, which make her feel like she’s able to have the sort of impact she envisioned when she first ran for Congress.
First she was tapped for the Committee on Financial Services, led by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. Then last month she was appointed to the powerful Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by the pugnacious Rep. Henry Waxman of Los Angeles.
One of the committee’s recent investigations has discovered that at least 16 people — 10 soldiers, five marines and a foreign contractor — have been electrocuted (while taking a shower, for example) due to faulty wiring at U.S. bases and facilities in Iraq. The contractor in charge of wiring over there? None other than former Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc.
– There was a poignant moment when Speier was discussing a trip she’s planning this fall to the Middle East. When we asked if she intends to go to Iraq, her daughter Steph, who’d been sitting quietly on a couch throughout the interview, piped up, expressing her concern.
Speier reassured her daughter, who is 14 and beginning ninth grade this month, that she’s not going to Iraq, though she does plan on visiting Afghanistan. She went on to stress the importance of Afghanistan to U.S. national security, especially given the progress the Taliban has made there in the last few years with American forces concentrated in Iraq.
– Asked whether Democrats will buckle to Republicans’ pressure to renew offshore oil drilling, Speier said she expects there will be a bill this fall that allows for drilling but includes a suite of alternative energy incentives.
Where drilling would occur would be up to invidual states, Speier said, meaning that the likelihood of drilling off the beaches of California remains slight, given the state’s entrenched political opposition to the idea.
There would also be a “use it or lose it” provision, designed to prevent oil companies from sitting on leases simply to prevent their competitors from using them.