Richmond’s Congressman George Miller discusses healthcare, crime, pollution, and food policy
on April 9, 2012
Representative George Miller is an unabashedly left-leaning Democrat and Richmond’s congressional representative, who is currently focused on the national healthcare and budget debates.
Born in Richmond, Miller first ran for office in 1969, when his father, Democratic party leader George Miller, Jr., died while serving in California’s 7th State Senate district. He lost that year and returned to college to pursue a law degree from the UC Davis School of Law. After finishing his law degree, he ran for the open seat in California’s 7th congressional district in 1974, which includes Vacaville, Vallejo, Pittsburg, Concord, El Cerrito, San Pablo, and Richmond. He has won re-election eighteen times.
As one of the three committee chairmen who authored the Affordable Healthcare for America Act (H.R. 3962) in October of 2009—which requires affordable healthcare for all Americans—he is battling Republicans in Congress who claim the law is unconstitutional because it requires some individuals to buy health insurance. The Supreme Court is currently reviewing the constitutionality of the law, with a decision expected to be announced this summer.
Meanwhile, Miller touts the achievements of the act so far, like the provisions that give prescription drug benefits to seniors, annual preventative care without co-pays to Medicare recipients, or health insurance to young people who have been kicked off their parents’ policies upon college graduation or after turning 26.
In his budget debate with the Republicans, Miller has critiqued the right wing for spending on defense. Meanwhile, Miller is arguing against budget cuts for social services like Medicaid and education.
Last Friday, Miller invited Richmond Confidential to sit down with him to discuss his larger, national efforts, as well as some specific Richmond issues.
Richmond Confidential: Tell us about your recent work on healthcare issues. What are your motivations to continue to fight for the Affordable Healthcare for America Act?
Miller: I walk away as an author of the legislation hoping that it is found constitutional. Everybody is already in the healthcare system. Some people don’t pay. They either can’t pay or they refuse to get coverage and that comes out of everybody else’s pocket. To try to keep cost in line and to make it a more efficient system, you need everybody in the system.
Nationwide, estimates are that insured people pay $1,000 a year for the uninsured [through unpaid hospital and doctor visits and maintenance of medical facilities]. In California, it’s a little higher. It’s about 15 percent of [insured residents’] health care costs [go to healthcare for the uninsured]. It’s not like you don’t pay for them or they don’t engage the system.
Richmond Confidential: What is your stance on the debate about the balancing the budget?
Miller: I think it is very clear that because the Republican budget refuses to do anything about increasing revenue, that it has very harsh cuts on the domestic side, because they refuse to do any military defense budget cuts. And so it really falls disproportionally on domestic discretionary spending. And as a result you see very substantial cuts in Medicaid for low-income people and education.
Richmond Confidential: In terms of budget cuts, what is something specific that you are working on?
Miller: We lowered the interest rates on student loans to 3.4 percent. In July, if we don’t put out the money to pay for that, they would go back up to 6.8 percent and that’s just something that is outrageous. In a time when college becomes more expensive and families are in a more precarious financial position because of the economy, to either cut the loan amount or raise the interest rate doesn’t make any sense. If you believe the interest of the country is the completion of college by students who are qualified and are able to go, you want them to be able to do that.
Richmond Confidential: Richmond just formed its first Food Policy Council, focusing on improving people’s access to nutritious food. What are your big concerns in terms of healthy food access in Richmond?
Miller: We work very hard to try to get fresh fruits and vegetables in the school lunch program. In fact, students are picking up fresh fruits and vegetables. But the system is still overwhelmed by processed foods of questionable nutritional value. … We put money in the program to help schools put in kitchens where they can cook from scratch.
Richmond Confidential: The Farm Bill is a comprehensive and controversial bill that deals with farm policies that dictate taxes, insurance, and organic labeling, as well as agricultural research and food and nutrition programs for low-income families. What is your primary concern as the bill is being debated in Congress amidst the budget cut arguments?
Miller: The funding for the food stamp program (SNAP) comes from the Farm Bill and that is always a matter of negotiations. That is already started. There is an effort to get the Farm Bill [passed] before we get to what may be very serious budget cuts in December. We have a budget process set up for sequestration, which would be budget cuts that are fifty-fifty domestic and defense. But Republicans already said they wouldn’t make any defense cuts, so it would all come out of domestic. The Farm Bill, there is an effort by the big subsidized corporations to try to get the Farm Bill done early so that it is exempt from those cuts. We are very concerned that the cuts will come out of food stamps. There is a big coalition of us working in Congress to make sure that the integrity of the food stamp program is maintained.
Richmond Confidential: In California, and in Richmond, the sale of medical marijuana is legal. However, under federal laws, the sale of marijuana is illegal for any reason. In light of the recent Drug Enforcement Agency raid on Oaksterdam, a medical marijuana dispensary in downtown Oakland, what is your stance on the legalization of medical marijuana?
Miller: [Legalizing medical marijuana] became a joke because it wasn’t related to medical conditions at all. You have the approach in California [to legalize or decriminalize marijuana] but the federal law remains the same. And you don’t get to just ignore the law. It’s up to the Congress of the United States to change the law. I don’t think that the Congress, with the current atmosphere is going to change the law. I think they should, but they won’t. You are going to continue to have this tension. And the fact of the matter is people are going to have people do it at risk to violate the federal law and are at risk for being punished for violating the federal law. That is not a good situation. But that is the facts. You don’t get to wish it away. You have to change it.
Richmond Confidential: There are currently two separate fishing bans in the San Francisco Bay (with one specific to the Richmond Harbor) because of various pockets of different pollutants that are in the water. What is the future of clean water efforts for the bay?
Miller: There is an ongoing process under the Clean Water Act. To continue to do this, to upgrade municipal sewer outflows, which we are in the process of doing, there is the constant question of discharge of industry in the bay, and there is the question of sites like The United-Heckathorn Superfund Site.
[Editor’s note: The United-Heckathorn Superfund site in the Richmond Harbor is in the middle of a decades-long toxic waste clean up effort after industry left the water heavily polluted with DDT in the 1950’s.]
It’s ongoing because you have this huge amount of municipal sewer water from Sacramento flowing into the delta or treated so heavily with ammonia that it is creating consequences. There is a ban on eating fish you catch in the bay because the overall presence of toxins in the food chains in the entire bay.
Right now you have a political situation in Congress where any effort to strengthen clean air or clean water is prevented by the make-up of the Congress. I mean, you see this struggle. You try to clean up the water and they say you are over-regulating it or it doesn’t matter. And we go back and forth on this. The fact is that most people support the continued improvement of clean water and the continued improvement of clean air but you have to have money to do that. And this Congress under the Republican leadership is not prepared to put money in.
Richmond Confidential: Preventing crime is a big issue in Richmond. The Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) uses a controversial method of employing ex-gang members to directly talk to at-risk young people. Director DeVone Boggan often travels with them and presents them with opportunities they wouldn’t have on the street. After a fistfight erupted at City Hall between members of rival gangs, both invited by Boggan, the debate on ONS’s effectiveness grew heated. How do you feel about ONS and crime in Richmond?
Miller: I think that if you look at our history of trying to deal with [crime] in West County and Richmond, you get to a conclusion that you really need a lot of different approaches and a lot of people involved. What DeVone has created is another avenue for a conversation. He has been able to reach in and get people to leave that violent activity. It’s not perfect. Not everybody is going to change their mind. He has given them some avenues by connecting them with job training, by connecting them with opportunities that they wouldn’t have otherwise.
He has brought them to Washington D.C. Some of them have made presentations. And independently, a guy comes up to me from Texas and he starts telling me about a presentation being made and it’s about these kids—they aren’t kids, they are young adults—just blew this convention away. And it was DeVone’s group. They were invited back again this year and that’s when I gave [D’Vondre Woodards, one of the group’s members] a ticket to State of the Union. He was a gang member. He was shot and paralyzed. He is now finishing up at Contra Costa College. These successes come and it doesn’t change over night.
Take the same approach and move it to Richmond High School where you have the Bay Area Peacekeepers. There you have, internally, a group of students reaching out to other groups. And you spend time talking to these young people and it’s really impressive. Because, as they said, they were getting “the potentials.” What are the potentials? The potential gang members start missing class, start missing school for no good reason. You show up late. You just lose your discipline. They bring them back.
We attack [crime] with ShotSpotter [a gunshot detection and location mechanism established in Richmond 2009] so you have a better identification of who was there at that time when this incident happened. One of the things I have learned you have to take all of these resources. To put the crime rate on one organization or one top of the police department or on top of some other group, it doesn’t work that way. I will take any resource that is trying to penetrate that environment of violence.
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