McNerney defends FISA vote to constituents

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton, just wrapped up an hour-long telephone town hall meeting with a few hundred constituents in which he took questions on issues from gas prices to veterans’ benefits to transportation planning and beyond.

And yes, he even took a question (hooray for “Neil from Tracy”) about his controversial vote last week in favor of a bill amending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – a bill that critics said effectively grants retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush Administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

“The FISA bill is a good bill,” McNerney told the few hundred constituents on the call, because it helps the intelligence community “track down terrorists who are trying to hurt us, and we’ve learned we can’t be lax about that,” while also strengthening civil-liberties protections by reiterating and reinforcing the need for court-issued warrants for all domestic surveillance. As for immunity, he said, the bill gives authority for investigating violations to the courts “where it should be, I think that’s the proper venue for investigating when laws have been broken.”

Critics say the bill does nothing more than instruct federal courts to grant immunity to any telecom company that received a written directive from the Attorney General, regardless of whether the company believed its actions to be lawful.

Anyway, McNerney’s first town-hall-by-phone (Pete Stark did one a few weeks ago) seemed to go swimmingly. Andy Stone, McNerney’s communications director, said these teleconferences are “certainly not a replacement” for his many face-to-face events in the district (the next of which is scheduled for this Saturday) but rather “just another way for him to stay in touch with you, his constituents.”

McNerney made only very brief remarks at the top of the hour, choosing to go straight to constituents’ questions. More on a few of those, after the jump…

Josh from Tracy wanted to know what McNerney’s doing about skyrocketing gas prices. “I know how painful it is out there,” the lawmaker replied, adding Congress has taken “strong action” by requiring President Bush to suspend transfers to the strategic petroleum reserve and by giving him authority to crack down on price gouging and market manipulation. “Opening up more areas to drilling won’t help,” he said, as oil companies already have plenty of fruitful areas to tap and plenty of refining capability to handle the flow. “The tools are there, it’s up to the president to work to lower the short-term gas prices with the tools we’ve given him” while Congress takes the long view by tightening vehicles’ fuel-efficiency standards and encouraging alternative fuel development.

Jennifer in Dublin said she was “wondering what you’re doing to help the veterans of our country.” McNerney said it’s “a very emotional issue for me because my own son is a veteran… They deserve good treatment, they deserve healthcare, they deserve benefits that were promised to them.” The new GI bill making its way toward the president’s desk would grant educational benefits equivalent to those provided to World War II veterans, he said, and he’s proud that Congress boosted the VA’s budget by $6 billion – its largest increase ever – to deal with mental health and other issues facing veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Larry in Tracy wanted to know what’s being done “to help to lower the cost of prescription drugs for senior citizens;” he said his mother-in-law spends half her monthly Social Security check on medicine. McNerney said Democrats are trying to amend Medicare Part D so the government can negotiate for lower prescription drug prices with the pharmaceutical companies, and he’s willing to look for ways to allow importation of safe, cheaper drugs from Canada and elsewhere.

Craig in Tracy wanted to know whether McNerney supports “the proposal to start moving freight out of the Oakland port via rail into the San Joaquin Valley, and intermodal transportation from there” in order to keep it off the Bay Area’s traffic-choked freeways. “We do see a lot of freight traffic through 580 and 205 from the Port of Oakland, it’s a necessary part of our commerce,” McNerney said, but he too would like to see more freight moved through the ports of Stockton and Sacramento and more of Oakland’s freight moved by rail through the Capitol corridor, not over the Altamont.

I know this selection of questions seems Tracy-heavy; McNerney also took questions from people in Danville, Walnut Creek, Brentwood, San Ramon and other locations.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.