U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, who represents about 60,000 people in the Lower Valley, recently made a trip to El Paso.
Gallego, D-Texas, sat down with the El Paso Times to talk about his first three months in Congress. He discussed the divisiveness in Washington, D.C., the future of Fort Bliss, agriculture in the Southwest and the challenges of representing 800 miles of U.S.-Mexico border.
Q: How have your first three months in Congress been?
A: It's a great feeling for me to represent this area. It's a fascinating job. It can be a frustrating job. There doesn't seem to be as much of a sense of urgency among some members that I have. It can be partisan and divided. I think we need to focus more on
compromise, on putting out the fire instead of adding fuel to it, but I believe we can. All in all, it's been incredibly rewarding.
Q: How do you handle representing 800 miles of Texas-Mexico border? Are the issues in Alpine the same as East El Paso?
A: I've always had a history of representing a very diverse district. When I was in the (state) Legislature, I represented 18 percent of the land area. Now, it's 23 percent. I'm used to the diversity. I like diversity of thought. I like diversity of opinion and I like diverse communities. So I handle it by trying to get to fundamentally know the communities I represent. For example this week, we're not in session so I'm visiting several different areas. I
think in my first 100 days of office I will have visited all the counties I represent. ... The single most important thing for me is constituent case work so the folks at home are taken care of. I'm going to be the first congressman who represents the 23rd (district) that has represented part of El Paso that actually has an office here because I want to be close to folks. I want to be there when they need me. I want to know the community. I want to be invested in the community. I want to be a participant in the community. So whether there's an issue of social security checks that are late or crossing times at the border, I want the reputation as someone who did great constituent case work and solved the problem.
Q: What are the biggest issues facing the Lower Valley?
A: There's really great potential in the Lower Valley and El Paso. There's so much history there. It's an incredible place. I'd like to see the community continue to develop and showcase its history by working with the Chamber of Commerce. I want to work with the local business community to help increase the area's stature, for example to build more trade and tourism. There are infrastructure needs out there that we need to go look at. For me, there are four things that can really enhance a community and create opportunity. Those are jobs, the proper educational system, transportation with roads, sidewalks and bridges, and public health system so our kids are growing up happy and healthy.
Q: You mention education. Are you aware of the cheating scandals that have rocked the school districts here and cost children the proper education?
A: It's hard not to and it saddens me. There's not a single issue or challenge that faces our society that can't be solved with education. You want to break the cycle of poverty in your family? You get an education. You want to break the cycle of violence or drugs in your family? You get an education. You're stuck in a dead end job and want to get out? You get an education. Education is the basis of every opportunity.
Q: Is there anything as a congressman you can do?
A: The House of Representatives is a little different from the (state) Legislature in the sense that there were 150 of us in the Legislature and you can get involved and make an impact in a bunch of areas. In the congressional system, with 435 people, it's very difficult to spread yourself across to do the kinds of things you want to do in every area. I am trying to the extent that I can to work on issues that are very important to me. But I am clearly concentrating my efforts on the two committees that I'm on, which are Armed Services and Agriculture. Military, with Fort Bliss, is clearly important for El Paso, and agriculture, well you don't have to go very far down I-10 to see that.
Q: What are your goals on the Armed Services Committee?
A: The bottom line is to take care of the men and women in uniform, our sons and daughters, our kids in harm's way, and making sure they have everything that they need to succeed. I believe that this is a continuing obligation. Whenever soldiers come back, government cannot just thank them and leave them on their own. We've made a commitment to them for life. Whether it's medical care or going to school, I think we have to be there for them.
Q: Let's talk sequestration. What can you do to minimize its impact?
A: One of the things I did was vote for the continuing resolution that gave much more flexibility to the Department of Defense as to where its cuts were. It's not the be all end all, but it does alleviate some of the challenges. Frankly, sequestration is horrible public policy. It does not solve anything, it only makes matters worse.
Q: But isn't the national debt a big deal?
A: It's a huge deal. But here's my frustration with the sequester. It's kind of hypocritical. Many of the loudest voices for the sequester were at the front of the line in terms of voting for the spending that got us here in the first place. How we got here isn't rocket science. The budget was balanced at the end of the Clinton administration. You can't fight two wars and cut taxes at the same time. Mathematically, that's just not doable. For those people who voted for all of that unbudgeted spending -- we didn't plan for it -- I think it's disingenuous to now say the government spends too much. The current challenge is not what we spend on a daily basis. The issue is that we've maxed out every one of our credit cards and we've got to pay the debt, plus what we normally spend.
Q: Outside of sequestration, the Army will try to reduce troop levels to pre-Sept. 11, 2011, levels in the next seven years. How do you ensure Fort Bliss is not negatively affected?
A: I think Fort Bliss is in a great position. It's got a lot of room to grow and a lot of federal investment. We're blessed with the terrain that we have. While cutting troops as we exit two wars is natural, I think Fort Bliss will continue to grow and be an even bigger base. I want it to be not only the state's but the country's premier Army base.
Q: Let's talk agriculture. You're a big proponent of farming. But how do we promote farming in a the desert without killing our water resources.
A: It's tough. We've been in battles with New Mexico over water and we've won, but at considerable economic costs. The challenge is our population is growing. But you have to remember we need to feed everyone. If you look at Elephant Butte, they're at maybe five-percent capacity. The numbers are bad. El Paso, fortunately, has had some really good leadership with Ed Archuleta but we still have to do more. We have to look at efficiency, recycling, desalination, using brackish water. We have to invest in those kinds of technology. Another water fight that I think is significant is not the fight between Texas and New Mexico, but Texas and Old Mexico. There are some of us who think they're not living up to the terms and obligations of the treaty of the relief of the Rio Grande. Water is going to be an interesting fight. Right now, we'll wait to see what the (state) Legislature does on the issue and then hopefully we can come back on the federal level with more support.
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