Rancho Santa Fe: A conversation with Rep. Darrell Issa


By Joe Tash

Representative Darrell Issa, a Republican, has represented California’s 49th Congressional District for the past 12 years. This year, as a result of redistricting following the 2010 U.S. Census, the 49th District will shift to include Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Del Mar.

After Republicans took over the House in 2010, Issa became chairman of the high-profile Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where he has held hearings on such topics as the Justice Department’s Operation Fast and Furious, and the recent debate over whether religious institutions such as the Catholic Church should be forced to offer contraceptive coverage to employees of church-owned universities and hospitals.

Issa said his new district includes only about 31 percent of the territory from his old district. The change also signals a shift in party registration: the old 49th District included 45 percent Republicans and 28 percent Democrats, while the new district has 40 percent Republicans, 30 percent Democrats and 24 percent with no party preference, according to the San Diego County Registrar of Voters.

Issa will face three challengers in June’s open primary election, in which voters can cast their ballot for any of the candidates, regardless of their party registration. They are Dick Eiden, retired attorney/poet, no party preference; Albin Novinec, U.S. Marine, no party preference; and Jerry Tetalman, registered nurse/Realtor, Democrat.

Recently, we sat down with Issa in his Vista office for a Q & A session. The interview has been edited for brevity.

Q. So this is your second time going through redistricting?

A. Exactly. My first term was one district, my next five terms were this other district and now it’s moving back. It’s one of these things where… it’s not sour grapes because all the districts have been fine, but it was pure gerrymandering, it was gamesmanship by the Democrats last time. This time I’m not sure you can call it gamesmanship by the Democrats, although it’s very clear they took over the (state redistricting) commission and made it favorable to their view. But that’s what gerrymandering is all about and every state has it.

Q. Does it change anything for you? Your constituency, how you approach the job?

A. I don’t think it can. There are two types of members. Those who vote their district and those who vote their conscience. I’ve always said since I ran 12 years ago, obviously, you work for your district, you work for your state, when it’s time for those things, making sure your state gets a fair representation of nationally distributed money. But I’ve always voted my conscience. And I can’t see where any of my votes… there are votes I might make differently the next time after 12 years of doing this, but I don’t see where the district is going to make any difference at all. I’m going from a poor district, a poor rural district, to a more urban, richer district, but Camp Pendleton still defines my district.

Q. Why do you say that Camp Pendleton defines the district when you have all these other areas as well?

A. If you look at the needs, needing to make sure we protect Camp Pendleton from the kind of intrusion… by my own constituents… that could lead to the base no longer being effective. Those 49,000 Marines don’t have anyone to represent them. They don’t have a lobby.

You ask why the base defines it? It defines it because all of those groups… let’s not forget that the airport authority thought the San Diego airport could go at Pendleton, too. And let’s not forget we even had the talk of couldn’t we put a stadium there? Everybody wants to put something in somebody else’s land. That land is critical to national defense. There’s no other West Coast location of its size for an amphibious, if you will, military. I have an obligation.

If you look at the new district, whether it’s Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, or it’s Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks Ranch, these are the haves, they’re not the 1 percent, necessarily, but they’re certainly the top 15 or 20 percent. For the most part, that district doesn’t want. It wants government to take care of those who need, but it doesn’t want a lot from the government. You talk to somebody from Rancho Santa Fe, mostly what they want is for the government not to get bigger. That’s the other part of it. A lot of my Democratic colleagues represent districts that are net receivers of federal money. I represent a district now that is a net giver to the federal government.

Q. Could you talk about two or three things that are a priority for the district specifically if you are elected to a new term?

A. There really isn’t. Again, this is a district that is a net giver to the government. If you say you want more education, we’ll be paying a $1.50 for every dollar we get back. If you say you want more health care under Obamacare, we’ll be paying $2 for every dollar we get back in the district. It’s almost guaranteed to have that kind of continuum. So does this district want anything specific? No, the (Army) Corps of Engineers has operations, small operations within the San Luis Rey flood control that goes through Oceanside, that needs to be finished for Oceanside. There’s a number of those kinds of projects. But for the most part my district, I believe, wants me to stay in touch with how the district views what should be done in Washington.

I don’t know that you’ll get this from every interview. Most members of Congress for some reason want to endlessly talk about money they got for a healthcare clinic or whatever. We do our share of making sure that this district I represent gets its fair share, but I view that as almost a clerical part of the job, making sure there’s fair representation in that sense. And certainly, if I get more than my share I wouldn’t brag about it and if I get less than my share I wouldn’t want it known. But as you know I quit doing earmarks long before earmarks were banned.

And one of the things I’m working on is getting rid of presidential earmarks. There’s actually far more money that the executive branch is doling out to its friends than Congress ever did.

So do they want me to come up with fixes and push hard to get them through Congress for the Post Office? Yes. Do they want me to help find ways to cut the deficit? Yes. Are they concerned that I take a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq every year, to see whether one more of my, our, Marines or Army are dying than need to be? Yeah. Those are sort of the way I view the job.

Q. There was a lot of publicity and controversy over contraception and the hearings, the image of the five men testifying, and you took some criticism over that …

A. It was a false image.

Q. How so?

A. First of all, I had two women on the panel. We split our panels…there were 10 witnesses. We normally break panels down into manageable sizes and we differentiate them based on expertise. The first panel was ordained ministers only and a rabbi.

Q. So it was broken into two groups of five …

A. Two groups of five.

The Democrats asked for a man, they got a man, and then they withdrew him. Carolyn Maloney (Democratic Congresswoman from New York, and a member of Issa’s committee) then made the famous (statement), “Where are the women?” That was an outright lie and she knew it when she said it. There were two women on the second panel, they had the list in front of them. The Democrats had never requested a woman qualified for the first panel. Now I said they had two witnesses. The second witness they had is a Georgetown graduate student.

Q. Sandra …

A. Fluke. She was never considered for the first panel and they knew it. Had she been seated on the second panel, she would have been seated next to two women. So there is the lie.

I vote for, along with the rest of the Congress, including virtually every Republican member on the dais, I vote for funding every year for contraception. We give Planned Parenthood $500 million. I repeat, we the government, give Planned Parenthood $500 million a year. We provide over $2 billion a year specifically for women’s health issues, first and foremost among those including contraception. Contraception is provided at federal government expense to a large number of women. We provide it to women in the military, we provide it through Indian health, we provide it under Medicaid. Anyone wanting to have a discussion on it misses the whole point. I voted for family planning including contraception. That was never part of the debate.

Q. Then you had the Rush Limbaugh’s comments (calling Sandra Fluke a slut and a prostitute), what was your reaction?

A. Rush said something very offensive to all women and very offensive and inappropriate for this woman whom I’ve never actually met personally, Sandra Fluke. He was out of line and I think he’s been criticized by all of us, I put out a written statement denouncing what he did. But remember, he’s a shock jock. We can call him other things, but he’s Howard Stern of the right. So, yes, was he out of line? Sure.

I go on Bill Maher’s show, he’s a devout atheist, he’s so atheist he can’t stay off the subject of being an atheist. Bill Maher is brilliant… I enjoy his show, his healthy, almost over-the-top healthy indignation over hypocrisy is great. I’m not somebody who denounces Bill Maher. Bill Maher, like George Carlin, they’ve got a place.

Like the rabbi who testified, this isn’t my fight on issues of women’s paid-for access to health care, this is a question of whether or not you can force, directly or indirectly, the church or people of conscience, to pay for it. And it’s very narrow.

So we held a hearing on it, the hearing was hijacked by a false statement of “where are the women,” when in fact the women were on the second panel.

That’s the truth and that can be verified six ways from Sunday and the Democrats know it.

Q. You’ve been involved with the Internet issue, SOPA and PIPI (Stop Online Piracy Act and Protect IP Act). What is wrong with those?

A. Everything.

Q. And what is right about the OPEN Act (which Issa helped draft)?

A. PIPA and SOPA proposed they were dealing with foreign piracy. OPEN deals with foreign piracy. Now SOPA, the House version, actually was about empowering trial lawyers and the Motion Picture Association, being able to extort Google and Yahoo into doing things, over and above what they were already doing voluntarily.

It was going to be hundreds of billions of dollars of lost, new product development. Products like hosted websites, Drop Box or Picasa or Gmail. Those products would never have existed if SOPA and PIPA were in place. So these bills were really bad. By the time they went down in flames, everybody understood they were really bad. But they came very close to becoming law.

Q. How does the OPEN Act remedy that situation?

A. It allows the International Trade Commission, which is an existing anti-piracy entity, it allows them to provide exclusion orders against these foreign sites, and then it allows them to enjoin any entity in the U.S. which is in fact facilitating the money. It doesn’t touch you and I uploading to Yahoo or Drop Box, a song that may or may not belong to us, because the motion picture and the recording artists, and others, already have the right to go into court, to regular district court if they think anyone is doing something wrong, and they even have the right to sue for example Drop Box and say they are somehow complicit in it or profiting from it.

We think we can stop the Russian site from earning money by selling us our own movies. So it’s narrow, but it does what legitimately needs to be done, and I’ve vetted this against companies on both sides, and the truth is it solves this problem.

Q. What do you think about the recent polls showing very low approval ratings for Congress of between 10 and 13 percent?

A. First of all, those so-called approval ratings are just plain distortions of reality. Of course they’re not accurate. And here’s why. What they do is ask everybody if they’re dissatisfied with Congress. One side is dissatisfied with the Democrats. Another side is dissatisfied with Republicans. The way this question’s asked, those two groups are dissatisfied with different people. If you asked, what percentage of Congress represents your values, it’d be higher than 10 percent. So, by going to the negative, they create an automatic low number.

Then on top of that, there’s a lot of people who believe we ought to all just get along. But when you ask them the question of, what does get along mean, well, half of them want to get along by having more government programs, and half of them want to get along by having less.

The truth is, my popularity, (Rep.) Susan Davis’s popularity, (Rep.) Brian Bilbray’s popularity, is higher than the president’s. I would suspect you would find all of us generally have an approval rating, just us individually, above 50 percent. The president’s at 46 percent. That’s not to say that that number shouldn’t concern people, it does, but you have to first understand, I can’t make Congress more acceptable, and the president’s not trying to make Congress more acceptable. It’s my job to do the best job I can and the people judge me.

Q. Are you going to endorse one of the presidential candidates?

A. I’ve already endorsed Mitt Romney.