Congressman Derek Kilmer has had enough of cable news

At the start of his fourth term representing western Washington, Kilmer sat down for a wide-ranging interview on what he called “toxicity” in the current political discourse, job growth, military spending, climate change and more.

POULSBO – Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-WA 6th District) visited the Kitsap News Group on Thursday afternoon in the midst of this month’s District Work Period, a break in the Congressional calendar designed for members to come home, schmooze and strategize with voters, and learn about issues that are top of mind in the district.

In between a Bremerton Rotary Club appearance and a meeting with the Suquamish Tribe later in the day, Kilmer – who recently began his fourth term in Congress and his first committee chairmanship – sat down for an open-ended interview that ranged in topics from how Congress uses technology, to the affordable housing crisis, to what he called “toxicity” in the current political discourse, to the President’s emergency declaration to build a southern border wall.

The interview, transcribed below, has been edited for concision and clarity.

You were recently appointed to chair a new committee, the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It’s your first chairmanship, if I’m not mistaken.

You’ve worked in consulting and have experience managing organizations. What are three priorities that you have in mind for the committee this session?

Let me zoom out for a second and talk about why this committee exists. This committee exists because Congress isn’t functioning the way it ought to. Every time you see legislation written behind closed doors, or government shutdowns, or the dynamic in DC look like the Jerry Springer show, I think it erodes public faith. The public justifiably is frustrated with what they see out of Washington, DC.

It’s still weird for me to be part of an organization that recent polling suggests is less popular than head lice and Nickelback.

I can relate.

There you go. Misery doesn’t love company. So I think there is an acknowledgment that Congress isn’t functioning the way it should.

There are specific things that the committee has been asked to look at, and those things include things like the rules and procedures of the House. Are there rules that would make the place function better, that would improve transparency, that may allow more bipartisanship?

Second is issues around technology. One of my colleagues was quoted as saying Congress is a 19th century institution, using 20th century technology to solve 21st century problems. So one of the things we’ve been asked to look at is how Congress uses technology, but specifically things like how do you protect cyber security? We have people who reach out to our office who have issues with the IRS, or with the VA or with immigration or what-have-you. Making sure that that’s all safe and secure is certainly a priority for me and should be a priority for Congress.

Beyond that, looking at how Congress onboards innovation to better solve problems, to have more data-driven problem solving, to interact and work with each other better, and to engage our constituents better. Right now you basically have 435 independent contractors who may adopt technological innovation in 435 different ways.

The other area that has a lot of interest around staff recruitment, retention and diversity. There’s a tremendous amount of turnover among Congressional staff. And it’s really important that Congress have the capacity to solve tough problems. And that Congress is an equal branch of government – you don’t want to see it’s capacity to engage on serious problems eroded to the point that you’ve basically ceded the field to the executive branch or, frankly, to outside special interests. To lobbyists and the folks who don’t turnover that much, and in my view have far too much say in the process.

One way technology is transforming politics is through the use of social media. It had a major impact on the 2016 presidential election – I’m not sure we would have our current President if it weren’t for Twitter – and it had a major impact on the midterms with candidates like Beto O’Rourke raising a ton of money and gaining national notoriety with Facebook videos and things like that.

It also can be problematic for some politicians. Your colleague Ilhan Omar sent a tweet recently that received a lot of pushback. You saw what Steve King has tweeted. Politicians can get into trouble using social media, and it happens pretty frequently.

Do you have guidelines that you follow when you use social media, or that you give new members – or old members – trying to use social media effectively without stepping in it?

It’s a really good question. I think we’ve found social media to be an incredibly powerful tool for engaging our constituents. I did a Facebook Live town hall during the shutdown, and later I did an in-person town hall in every county that I represent. In the end, several times more people watched that video than attended all six of our in-person town halls, added up.

We did a Facebook Live event this morning on a bill that I introduced focused on workforce development. We try to engage people in a way that may be more interesting than a press release or a post.

Getting to the nuts and bolts of your question though – what I’ve tried to do, and it’s not limited to social media, it’s how I comport myself in public meetings, in town halls. Even in private conversations with constituents. I look at part of my role is to try to model good behavior. To make sure that both in terms of what I communicate and how I communicate, that I’m not contributing to the toxicity of our politics.

I mean listen, I can’t watch cable news within an hour of eating. It’s brutal. I don’t want to negatively contribute to that dynamic. That may mean what I post is not going to go as viral as if I said something super controversial, but I’d rather be able to sit down at night and talk to my kids and feel like I’m doing right by the tone I’m setting.

Which is not to say that – listen, there are times where I have ardent disagreements with the direction of the administration, or what have you. And I think it’s okay to speak up and to stand your ground and be forceful in saying ‘here’s why this isn’t in line with my values.’ But I think we’ve got to get better as a country about disagreement in a way that isn’t so disagreeable. That doesn’t create such a toxic climate.

On a topic that you probably are passionate about, and may have strong disagreements on – climate change. You are on the Bipartisan Climate Solutions caucus, part of whose mission is to educate members on the risks of climate change. Obviously you’re a policymaker who values evidence, statistics, and scientific research.

Why do you think it is that we have elected members of Congress that deny the scientific consensus on global warming?

I would say that’s one of the most significant concerns I’ve had in the time I’ve been in Washington, DC – is the degree to which people in Washington are willing to ignore science or kowtow to special interests.

I think the evidence is clear that climate change is real and that we need to do something about it. You can just look at the district I represent. I represent 11 Native American tribes, four are coastal tribes that as we sit here are in the process of trying to move to higher ground. We were out in Taholah a few weeks back meeting with the Quinault Indian Nation. Their lower reservation is below sea level. Their president Fawn Sharp said to me ‘when I was a kid the ocean was a football field’s length away.’ She said ‘now it’s our front porch.

They and three other tribes in the district I represent are literally trying to move to higher ground because of more severe storms, rising sea levels – not to mention the threat of tsunami. We have 3,200 people in the district I represent whose jobs are tied to shellfish growing, fisheries. They are seeing changing ocean chemistry impact the future of their livelihoods. We’ve seen more severe wildfires, including one a couple years ago in the National Park – in the rainforest – that burned for weeks. The United States Navy and the Defense Department writ large have identified climate change as what they call a threat multiplier, because of the instability it causes, not to mention the fact that most of our Naval bases are on the water.

In my view, we’ve got to take action. Part of the reason I’m involved in that bipartisan caucus is to try to elevate that issue not just within the American public but within the Congress. I actually think the American public is far ahead of where Congress is on this issue.

So far we’ve seen mostly backward motion in our nation’s capital. Under the last administration there was something called the Clean Power Plan to try to say that as America produces power, we should focus on reducing carbon emissions, and try to produce more power in a low-carbon way. That rule was repealed by the Trump administration. You saw an international negotiation on the Paris Climate Accord, to say let’s have every nation try to do their part to address climate change. We saw our nation remove itself from that effort. We’ve seen a persistent focus from this administration on doubling down on fossil fuels, on offshore drilling. And I think that moves us in the wrong direction.

There are clearly things that we could be doing that move us in the right direction. Auto emissions – we know that a great deal of the problem comes out of the tailpipes of automobiles. The last administration said let’s try to do something about that and improve emissions standards – which is also good for consumers, if we can improve fuel efficiency and that type of thing – this administration has repealed that.

On issue after issue you’ve seen this administration reject the science and move in the wrong direction. And I think that’s worse than short-sighted. I think our governor put it well, Governor Inslee said we’re the first generation to see the impacts of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. And this problem doesn’t get easier by ignoring it.

Let’s jump to housing. We are right across the Sound from Seattle, which has experienced a major housing boom. It’s one of the most expensive places to live in the country. Rents here have also exploded, as they have in many cities and suburbs across the country. One study showed rents jumped 45 percent in Kitsap County from 2013 to 2018, up to $1,300 a month.

This is a major concern to many of our readers. We had a Section 8 voucher waitlist opening where they accepted about 2,300 applicants for 300 spots. The housing director said people who would qualify for subsidies in the county is closer to 18,000.

We’ve had our local government try things like zoning changes. But what role do you see Congress playing in what many people call a crisis of housing affordability nationwide? My understanding is that HUD funding has been flat.

It’s been super flat. And in some instances, not even flat.

Let me try to unpack that in a few different ways. And unfortunately Kitsap County is not unique in this challenge. I don’t know that there’s any place in the district I represent that when you visit it, and you say what are the top three things you’re concerned about, that affordable housing isn’t in there.

Part of the issue is a supply issue. We need more housing. America needs far more housing, this is not just a Kitsap County thing. And there are a lot of factors contributing to that shortage.

We saw a real crash of the housing market and in home construction about a decade ago. There were ripple effects on that front that manifested themselves in making it more difficult to access capital, both for home builders and for home buyers. We saw a lot of people who were in the industry leave the industry, and as a consequence we need more home builders as well. If you talked to the Kitsap home builders they would say ‘we’re recruiting.’ That is really important and there’s a role there for Congress to support career and technical education to support vocational training.

Even land use policy – you mention density as a factor. There’s all of these sorts of factors – writ large, we need more housing.

Then there are programs that are specifically geared toward affordable housing and trying to prevent homelessness. A lot of those programs are funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which unfortunately in recent years has been slated for very substantial cuts by the administration. We’ve largely been playing defense trying to protect HUD funding because it’s really important to the housing authority, it’s really important in terms of access to Section 8 vouchers, it’s really important to some of the programs like emergency assistance that could keep someone from slipping into homelessness in the first place.

There are programs like the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit which support the development of public housing, of low-income housing.

Everwhere I’ve reported I’ve found that program to be a big driver of affordable housing development.

It’s a big deal. I’ve supported efforts to expand that, Senator Cantwell and Senator Murray have been super active on that. I think there’s real opportunity there because it makes that investment in affordable housing pencil out.

What about wages?

So that’s the other big thing. So I’m a recovering economic development professional, I worked for the Economic Development Board in Tacoma. And when we talk about housing affordability, the other way that we can make progress on this is to provide more economic opportunity to more people in more places. And that looks different on the hilltop of Tacoma than it does in Aberdeen and Hoquiam than it does in Poulsbo and Bremerton. The consistent thing that I work on in my office more than anything else is around jobs, and around economic opportunity and trying to make sure that people have an opportunity to earn a good living.

Do you support a $15 minimum wage?

There’s a bill in Congress that makes steady progress over multiple years to eventually get to $15. And I’m a co-sponsor of that bill. That’s not a ‘flip the switch’ bill but it’s making steady progress over time.

There are other things we’re working on in that regard. The efforts that we’re undertaking to support Naval Base Kitsap and to ensure that the Naval shipyard is able to modernize its infrastructure and continue to hire people. That’s really important to making sure that people can earn a good living in this county and afford housing.

Also, the work that we’ve done in partnership with the city of Bremerton and the Port of Bremerton and Mason County around improving infrastructure at the Port of Bremerton. The Port of Bremerton is the largest industrially zoned property in Western Washington that’s not developed. It’s zoned for 10,000 jobs – we’re about 9,700 jobs short of that right now. So there’s enormous capacity to support primary industry job growth in that area. We need road improvements there and we need sewer.

We do a bunch of small business outreach because frankly, most of the job growth you see comes from existing business just growing. So we’ve spent a bunch of time here in North Kitsap just meeting with local employers.

Speaking of growth and development. We have a development group called the West Sound Group that is taking advantage of Opportunity Zones on the Bremerton waterfront. It provides them a tax credit and they’re developing upscale apartments and a hotel.

That was part of the President’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Did you support that legislation, and if not, why not?

The Opportunity Zone provision was a standalone bipartisan bill that I was one of the co-sponsors of. And I’ll talk about the value of that. That I absolutely supported.

The broader tax bill I did not support, in part because I didn’t think it was in the best interests of the folks I represent. Most of the benefits went to the very wealthiest Americans. That’s not really my district – I don’t represent Silicon Valley or Seattle for that matter. I represent a lot of middle class families that unfortunately over the long haul may see their taxes go up as a consequence of that bill.

On top of that, I think we’ve got to get a handle on our long term fiscal challenges as a country – on our debt. And blowing a $1-2 trillion hole in the national debt I think is actually a real problem. Again, with the vast bulk of those benefits going to the wealthiest Americans who frankly don’t need a huge tax cut. I think middle class families and Main Street employers could use some help, but that’s not what this bill was about.

The rationale behind the Opportunity Zones program was to say, how do we drive more private investment into areas that are being left behind economically? So that there’s an incentive to invest in communities, so that they’re seeing economic opportunity too?

You look at the district I represent – I don’t represent Seattle. Seattle has been booming to the point that it has a growth problem – it has housing affordability challenges, you sit in traffic every time you’re up there. Most of the district I represent has a jobs challenge, not a growth challenge. I talk to people all over this district and most people say, ‘I don’t want our main export to be young people.’ I want to make sure we’re providing economic opportunity to people here in our community.

A bunch of what we work on including that Opportunity Zone designation, is how do you create more economic opportunity for more people in more places? That is literally the mission of our office.

On the topic of the budget – you mention the deficit. Obviously our number one expense is our military spending. You are somebody who supports investment in our Navy and our shipyard. I’m wondering, if you had to choose, would you say that we spend too much on our military, too little, or the right amount?

I’m going to have a lot more involvement on these issues because I just got put on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee. So let me get at that in a few different ways.

There are and will be very substantial needs for the United States Navy and for Naval Base Kitsap. The Navy just produced the Shipyard Modernization Plan, that looks at the Navy’s mission and how our public shipyards support our Navy’s mission. They have found that substantial additional investment needs to be made in our public shipyards to maintain our fleet, to ensure our readiness and to protect our national security. What that means is probably very substantial military construction and investment in a new modernized dry dock to support the larger class of ships, and additional work that needs to happen at Naval Base Kitsap. That is not solely a parochial priority – I’m not just supportive of that because it serves Kitsap County’s interests. I’m for that because it serves the mission of the Navy and it’s capacity to keep us safe.

Having said that, there are clearly areas of the Defense Department budget that Congress needs to take a closer look at. I say that primarily as a taxpayer who wants to make sure that my dollars are being spent in a wise way.

Sometimes the problem is Congress. The Department of Defense will say ‘well we don’t need X, Y, or Z.’ Someone will stand up and say, ‘well that product’s made in my district’ and push for it to continue to get bought. That’s problematic, because I don’t think taxpayers want to see investments made simply for the purpose of spending money. They want investments to be made to keep us safe.

Part of my excitement about serving on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee is to dive into some of that, and see where we can be wiser stewards of taxpayer resources.

Speaking of appropriations, we have a sort of unprecedented situation going on right now in Washington, where the executive branch is trying to circumvent Congress to appropriate money to build a barrier on the southern border.

You’ve come out against that emergency declaration. As somebody who does work to appropriate money the old fashioned way, so to speak – do you think Congress will stand in the way of that emergency declaration?

I think we’ll try. A resolution of disapproval is being introduced, I will co-sponsor that.

I think the emergency declaration is a bad idea on a number of fronts. One, under our system of government there’s a separation of powers where Congress has the power of the purse. The administration has the power to work with Congress to try to make sure their priorities are reflected, but this is a dangerous precedent – to say, ‘well I know Democrats and Republicans in the House and the Senate just negotiated a spending agreement. We’re going to ignore that and instead pull dollars away from other priorities.’ I think that’s dangerous precedent. You’ve heard Republicans suggest that’s a dangerous precedent. And if it’s going to happen for this, then I think everybody has to worry about – so when’s the next time the executive branch decides, ‘hey I want this priority funded, Congress isn’t going to fund it, I’m going to raid this pot of money or that pot of money.’

Second though, I’m concerned because the President’s plan is to pull money out of other priorities, including military construction, which as we just discussed – we have some real equities here in Kitsap County. And from drug interdiction. Neither of which should see money pulled from. And then third, I think there are real questions around the legitimacy of the national emergency declaration, in that the President said himself ‘I didn’t need to do this.’

I think where the American people are justifiably frustrated with this is that there is a bipartisan path for addressing border security. And I’m a co-sponsor of a bill that’s called the USA Act that tries to take a thoughtful, bipartisan approach. And that bill does a few things. One, it says let’s make investments in our ports of entry, because we know that’s where most drugs try to come across the border. Most contraband comes through our ports of entry. And so having additional sensor technology, screening technologies, makes a whole lot of sense.

Two, it says let’s do a mile-by-mile assessment of the southern border, and determine what’s the wisest investment. In some areas that may just be natural things that keep people from crossing the border. In some areas that may be technologies like sensors or drones or things like that. In some areas there may be an argument for fencing or barriers, but in those instances the requirement under the bill is that the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office justifies if that’s the approach, why that should be the approach. Rather than having the justification be ‘because it was promised during a campaign.’

Beyond that, the bill says let’s try to address some of the root causes of some of the issues you’ve seen at the southern border. For example, it says let’s hire far more immigration judges so that when people present themselves at the southern border seeking asylum, they’re able to get a hearing without being separated from their children, without having to wait in conditions that aren’t appropriate, that type of thing.

Four, it says let’s use the State Department to develop strategies and make investments that would seek to stabilize some of the countries that have seen such instability that’s it leading to people coming to our southern border, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

And then finally and importantly, the bill says let’s provide certainty for Dreamers and DACA recipients. Let’s provide a pathway to legal status for those DACA recipients, for those Dreamers, and kind of lift the dark cloud of uncertainty for those young people who came here through no choice of their own, through no fault of their own, who have made a life here. I met with a group of Dreamers last Martin Luther King Day, I had a woman say to me ‘I don’t know anyplace else. I was brought here as a toddler. If the government wants to deport me where are you going to send me? I don’t know anyplace else.’ I think that’s a very legitimate concern – these are young people who go to our schools, play on our playgrounds, pledge allegiance to the same flag you and I do. And are living with real uncertainty right now.

Gabe Stutman is a reporter with the Kitsap News Group. Follow him on Twitter @kitsapgabe.