The outspoken Westside congressman will help determine the national agenda of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, and that’s bad news for the Trump administration
By Joe Piasecki
The Blue Wave that wrested the House of Representatives from Republican control has also lifted one of President Donald Trump’s chief congressional antagonists to a new level of national influence.
Rep. Ted Lieu, whose coastal Los Angeles district stretches from Malibu to Rancho Palos Verdes, enters the new Congress on Jan. 3 as one of four leaders of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee. As a co-chair of the DPCC, Lieu will have an outsized role in guiding the national messaging strategy of House Democrats. And if the past two years shows us anything about where Lieu wants to take the party, expect him to press for a full-throttle assault on the White House.
Shortly after Trump took office, Lieu became a social media celebrity for mixing anger and humor to publicly skewer the president and top administration officials in 140 confrontational characters or less. When many in the media and government appeared flabbergasted and steamrolled by Trump’s aggressive posturing, Lieu was tweeting that former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer “makes shit up” and posted
a sign outside his own Capitol office declaring it an #alternativefacts-free zone.
More recently, Lieu defied Republican House leadership to play audio of crying children separated from their families at the Mexican border so it would become part of the Congressional Record. While staffing Woolsey Fire disaster recovery centers at home in November, Lieu also introduced the Restoring the Public Trust Act, which would specifically force Trump to reimburse the country for taxpayer dollars spent at his own properties, prohibit the president’s children from doing business with the government, and force the release of all presidential candidates’ tax returns. As a member of the powerful Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees, he led a minority-party effort last year calling for an FBI investigation into presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner allegedly leaking classified information to Saudi Arabia.
Through it all, Lieu has been relentless about keeping public attention on investigating potential Trump campaign collusion with Russia, saying that the convictions of attorney Michael Cohen and campaign manager Paul Manafort are “emblematic of Trump’s culture of corruption, and every one of us should be outraged.”
And now that the Democrats have control of the House, Lieu has finally has some legislative muscle behind him. He spoke to The Argonaut last month about some of his plans for the year ahead.
The Argonaut: As a DPCC co-chair, what kind of a tone can people expect you to help Democrats set this year?
Ted Lieu: I’m going to work with my colleagues on a bold and inclusive message that’s going to move America forward. Now that we have the majority, we’re going to work on a positive agenda to reduce health care costs, invest in infrastructure, raise people’s wages and root out corruption in Washington D.C. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, you don’t want to see corruption. We’re going to execute our congressional oversight duties to make sure the House of Representatives is restored as a co-equal branch of government.
What legislative goals should we expect from Democrat-controlled Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committees?
We’re going to have oversight hearings on the administration. A lot of what the administration has done in foreign policy has reduced America’s standing in the world. The administration is covering up the brutal murder of a journalist at a Saudi embassy by the Saudi government; they not only murdered [Washington Post columnist Jamal] Khashoggi, they cut him up into pieces. It was a completely unacceptable act of savagery. We’re going to have a hearing as to why the administration is not holding Saudi Arabia accountable.
And in the Judiciary Committee?
We are going to make sure we protect undocumented youth and pass a Dream Act or something similar that the U.S. Senate would also support. I also want to work on comprehensive immigration reform. A few years ago the Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform on a bipartisan basis; Speaker Boehner never allowed a vote in the House. Now that we have the majority [in the House], I believe we should be able to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and hopefully get the Senate to agree with it. … There are a lot more things we’re going to do in the area of criminal justice reform.
I also believe it’s far beyond time to have rationality in our cannabis laws. It is completely stupid to have such a large industry be all-cash. We need to allow banks to do transactions with the cannabis industry. I also believe it should no longer be a federal offense to possess or use cannabis. We should let the states decide that, and hopefully we can stop spending federal tax dollars trying to enforce stupid cannabis laws.
In terms of oversight, we have oversight over the Department of Justice, and we want to make sure the Robert Mueller investigation is protected and independent. We’re going to make sure we don’t have the administration engage in undue interference of their special counsel investigation and, should the administration try to shut it down, we would then proceed with our own Democratic investigation in the House Judiciary Committee of any possible crimes that the Trump campaign or the current administration has engaged in or is engaging in.
Is your Public Trust Act getting any traction?
Given the recent election, we haven’t yet focused on getting additional coauthors. The reason for this legislation is that a lot of these issues never arose in the past because prior administrations followed accepted norms of human behavior. This administration has gone to enormously imaginative and creative lengths to bypass our ethics laws and regulations. You had Treasury Secretary [Steve] Mnuchin fly himself and his wife to Kentucky on federal tax dollars so they could get a better view of the eclipse. You had [former Secretary of Health and Human Services] Tom Price repeatedly put himself on first-class and chartered travel that cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. You had EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt use his taxpayer-funded security detail to go to Ritz-Carlton hotels to get a certain brand of lotion.
We can’t have this waste, fraud and abuse happening. There is currently a federal regulation that says you are prohibited from using your public office for private gain; turns out that when you violate it, you get this really mean-sounding letter — that’s about it. So we’re putting some teeth in that regulation and we’re making it a crime for high-level administration officials to use their public office for private gain.
Do you have ideas for facilitating enough bipartisan cooperation among the House and the Senate to pass legislation?
Certainly there is overwhelming support among the American public for protecting undocumented youth. There is majority support for comprehensive immigration reform. The devil will be in the details, but I do feel positive we can get some significant immigration legislation passed.
What about other wedge issues, like gun control?
We absolutely need to pass common-sense gun safety legislation. Over 90% of the American public supports universal background checks. That should be legislation that we advance. The Judiciary Committee also has jurisdiction over gun issues; hopefully we can pass it off the floor of the House.
I also want to note that climate change is a threat not just to America, but to the entire world. The first bill I authored and introduced, four years ago, was the Climate Solutions Act. I was the coauthor of California’s landmark AB 32, the California Global Solutions Act, and my federal legislation basically takes California’s legislation and makes it national. We need to work on climate change legislation because we’re starting to see extreme weather effects more and more — more severe hurricanes, more severe wildfires, repeated flooding.
How can the United States join the world in fighting global climate change with Trump in the White House?
I believe you have to keep pushing. The actual withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords doesn’t happen for another two years, so if Donald Trump is no longer in the White House and a new president is elected, we could re-enter the Paris Climate Accords.
What do you think of calls for a Green New Deal and what that entails?
I support it. I signed on to the Green New Deal [in late November]. A big part of it is already in the infrastructure bill I introduced last year, which had an entire section on green jobs for the future economy. California has shown that being environmentally friendly and working on climate change is a net job creator. We have the strongest environmental and climate change laws in America, and our state went from the eighth-largest economy in the world to now the fifth-largest economy in the world.
Is there a path to Medicare for all or single-payer health insurance?
When I was in the California State Legislature I coauthored single-payer legislation. In Congress I’m a coauthor of single-payer legislation. I’m also part of the Medicare for All Caucus. So again, we just keep pushing. It’s also important that stop the current administration from continuing to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.
Why is it imperative to pass your Cyber Shield Act, and what stands in the way of expanding consumer protection standards for the ever-more common “internet of things”?
Right now Republicans stand in the way, but I do think in January we will have the opportunity to pass the Cyber Shield Act because consumers, frankly, are demanding additional information on consumer products in terms of cyber security. If you buy a lamp at Target, you know it’s not going to blow up in your living room, and that’s because there are these certifications on it. … We want to create similar voluntary certifications for cyber security so that if you go and buy a webcam, for example, you’ll know that hackers won’t easily be able to take control of it and start watching you or your kids.
What are the chances that Congress will impose stricter oversight or regulation of digital media companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter?
My view is that the First Amendment largely prevents government from interfering in the free speech of private sector companies. Facebook and Google and other private sector companies have the absolute right to design their algorithms any way they want, as long as it doesn’t violate civil rights laws or other existing laws. For example, YouTube could decide that more consumers like watching cute cat videos than watching Rep. Jim Jordan (R- Ohio) give a speech and prioritize cute cat videos over Rep. Jim Jordan. There’s nothing Jim Jordan or the U.S. government can or should do about that — that’s free speech. And if Rep. Jordan wants to get more views on YouTube, he should just make better speeches.
[Editor’s note: Jordan and Lieu have co-authored bipartisan legislation that would block states from requiring computer software to include encryption technology to facilitate government surveillance.]
What’s the biggest or most vexing problem in your district?
In much of my district homelessness is a problem, so I’m pleased that one of the first laws I got passed in Congress was to revitalize the West Los Angeles VA with a brand new master plan that with its full buildout will have 1,000 units of housing for homeless veterans. Addressing homelessness requires the cooperation and resources of local, county, state and federal officials. It’s a difficult problem, and something I’m going to keep working on.
What’s the most important thing Congress can do to facilitate greater income equality?
We need to stop passing stupid legislation like the Republican tax law that gave 83% of the benefits to the super-wealthy. We need to invest in infrastructure to create good-paying jobs that also help increase workers’ wages. And we really need to look at how we can improve opportunities for people in the economy of the 21st century — make sure that we educate all our children and give them their best shot in the future economy.