On February 2, DPR’s Megan Steinkirchner sat down with Representative Scott Peters (D-CA). After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Duke University, Congressman Peters worked as an economist for the Environmental Protection Agency and went on to receive a law degree from New York University. In 2012, he was elected to California’s 52nd district. Currently, he serves on the House Committee for Armed Services and the Judiciary Committee.
DPR: Before working in Congress, you were President of the San Diego City Council. What’s been the biggest change and adjustment between these two roles?
Peters: There are two main things. One is obviously the scale of Congress—it’s significantly larger. As the City Council President, I had to worry about eight people. I could talk to each one of them about what they needed and make sure we were all pulling together to help each other. If someone had a problem, it was easy to know about it and often, easy to fix. With 435 people, that’s really not possible.
The other thing that I identify as the biggest surprise for me was the difference in culture between Southern California and Washington, DC. San Diego is naturally collaborative and cooperative. It’s very common for people to sit around a table and think about how to solve problems. In Washington, I find it’s much more cluttered with hierarchy and status. I can play the game of “Where did you go to college?” but I hadn’t done that for thirty years. That’s big in DC, as well as “how long have you been here”, “what’s your rank”, “who do you work for”, “what’s your title”, “if you tell me what your status is, then I’ll tell you if you have a good idea.” That’s a very anti-innovative kind of culture. It’s a hard setting in which to deal with a lot of the challenges in our dynamic world.
DPR: People talk about increasing gridlock and stalemate in Washington. What do you think is the best way to get around that and increase cooperation with the executive branch and Congress?
Peters: I’m a fan of President Obama but I don’t think one of his strengths is reaching out to Congress. He could be more effective if he concentrated on building bridges and relationships, and it would help him work better with Congress. I think that people have to have an orientation that they’re going to go [to Washington] to get things done. I’ve thought a lot about—and not really sure if I have concluded—what the institutional changes would be.
We do have a good committee system that if allowed to work, should work better than it does. There is an infrastructure in Congress to deal with the different issues that face the country. It seems that in both parties, leadership has decided from on high what is and is not going to go on in those committees. Loosening the reins a little bit would be helpful. There’s an influence now from money—particularly the infusion of large amounts of money into the campaigns for unsafe seats, like mine—that might have an affect on people’s willingness to take political risks. Both parties have political extremes that their moderates fear. Those fears are made more reasonable with the more money that’s available, and now there’s a lot of money to take people out in primaries. We should think about how to reform that system to make deal-making, cooperation, and compromise acceptable again.
DPR: At what point did you realize you wanted to run for a larger political office?
Peters: I had finished my terms on the City Council and I thought I was done [with politics]. I was the Chairman of the Port Commission, which I enjoyed; it was a volunteer part–time position. I was thinking about going back to practice law when two people came to me—a friend from Planned Parenthood and a friend from the LGBT community center—and said, “Have you seen the way the redistricting has gone? Here’s a district that matches you really well.” If [the district] had been largely Republican, it would have been difficult for me to win, and now it’s right in the middle.
On City Council, I had been the first Democrat to win my seat—I was a Democrat that could get Republican and Independent votes. So people started talking to me about it. At the same time, Congress had been through the shutdown, the fight over the sequester, the Supercommittee, and we had our credit downgraded for the first time as a country. I just thought, “You know, we ought to be able to do better.” My kids were both out of the house and so my wife and I decided this could be the next phase of my career. I ran in 2012 and was fortunate to get elected.
DPR: Given our response to events in Syria, Ukraine, Iran’s nuclear program, terror attacks abroad – diplomatically speaking, how do you think the U.S. stands today in contrast to previous years?
Peters: Those things are separate, but together they comprise a really challenging time for the country. The risks are very, very serious to us. ISIL is much more brutal and much better connected than Al Qaeda, even in the way they’re using social media to recruit people. As you can see from the beheadings, they’re barbaric and their stated goal is not to stop at their borders… Technological threats, cyber security, and China and Russia stepping up their efforts in technology and defense raise new challenges for us.
[It used to be] pretty simple to think of the Navy and Marines covering the oceans, but now we have to think about space, underwater, above the air. I’m anxious for the Armed Services Committee and Intelligence Committees in both the Senate and the House to start thinking in a real bipartisan way because some of the old warfare is going to be less relevant. [Security] is going to require a lot of smart people working together. For our own national interest, this is one place where the bipartisanship has to start.
DPR: In terms of the committees you serve on and your own personal term, what are the big goals you want to be accomplished?
Peters: First of all, we have to get rid of this sequestration—these across-the-board budget cuts are no way to manage anything, particularly in the military. There’s a lot of deferred maintenance in the Navy. We count among our ships some vessels that aren’t prepared to sail. We have to step up our defense against emerging threats. We have to figure out what we don’t need—maybe go through another round of base closures, we may have to make some adjustments to personnel costs, and the way we compensate people so that we’re not spending money on things we don’t need to be spending money on. We’re going to have to be committed to being smart about our defense.
DPR: Since you’re a Duke grad, do you have a favorite Duke memory you can share with our readers?
Peters: In 1978, my sophomore year, it was the first Carolina game that I went to that we won. We stormed the court. That year, we went to the national championship game, just out of the blue. I remember that very fondly. I just loved being here. It opened my eyes to a lot and was a really important time for me. We didn’t tent back then. When you wanted to go to the Carolina game you had to wait, but only for about five hours—that’s it. But it was just as crazy and very creative in Cameron. It’s a little bit on steroids now [laughs].
This interview has been lightly edited.