U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela is stressing the importance of partnership — among business, education and community leaders across the board — in grappling with issues important to the city, county and region.
Vela, who represents the 34th Congressional District that includes Cameron County, was the keynote speaker at Friday’s Brownsville Chamber of Commerce annual luncheon, which honors the chamber’s outgoing directors and committee chairmen for their service and civic engagement.
“I view my role as that of a partner,” Vela said. “Going forward I really want you to know that I view you as a partner.”
District 34, one of four new Texas congressional districts created in 2010 as a result of the state’s population growth, is anchored by Brownsville and contains some 700,000 constituents. The district encompasses Cameron, Willacy, Kleberg, Kenedy, Jim Wells, Bee, Goliad and DeWitt counties, and parts of Hidalgo, San Patricio and Gonzales counties.
Vela, a longtime civil lawyer who announced in February 2012 that he intended to run for the seat in his first bid for political office, was sworn in Jan. 3.
He said he has spent the past month mostly getting his Washington, D.C., office and district offices up and running. Rather than just one district office, Vela said he created three to better serve communities in various parts of the district. Vela’s district offices are in Brownsville, San Benito and Alice.
The Brownsville office is officially open, though the San Benito and Alice offices are not. Getting the Capitol office up to speed has presented special challenges given the deliberate pace of federal bureaucracy, Vela admitted.
“We don’t even have software in our Washington, D.C., office yet,” he said.
Vela was assigned to the House committees on Agriculture and Homeland Security. Because committee assignments are based on seniority, “there wasn’t a whole lot left” when House leadership got to him and other freshmen, Vela said.
Still, there’s plenty of work to do — the Farm Bill, for instance. Every five years Congress is supposed to reauthorize it. However, last time around, in the throes of hand-wringing over the looming “fiscal cliff,” the House version of the bill never came to a vote, even though the House and the Senate had both drafted their own versions.
The current Farm Bill merely was extended for nine months, a classic case of case of kick-the-can-down-the-road, Vela said. Getting it reauthorized will take up much of the next year, he said.
“That’s something we’re going to be working on real hard,” Vela said.
He also sits on the Cybersecurity, Infrastructure Protection and Security Technologies subcommittee of the Homeland Security Committee. Vela noted that the U.S. has been subject to serious cyber attacks recently, including the hacking of The New York Times website by China.
“This is one of the things you’re going to be hearing about going forward,” he said.
Finding a way to avoid devastating funding cuts under “sequestration” if Republicans and Democrats can’t reach a compromise on spending is another top priority, Vela said. The cuts, which were put off for two months after a last-minute fiscal-cliff deal, are scheduled to begin in March.
Vela said it’s not clear how things will go, though he hasn’t seen any promising legislative packages advanced that would avoid sequestration.
Democrats and Republicans have managed to find things they can agree on in the form of an extension of middle-class tax cuts, a tax increase for families making more than $450,000 a year and relief funds for victims of Hurricane Sandy, he noted.
Such brief eruptions of bipartisanship offer a “glimmer of hope,” Vela said.
“We hadn’t seen that in a long time,” he said. “We’ll just have to wait (to see if it continues).”
In light of the massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Vela said not enough effort has been made toward solving the nation’s mental health crisis. As for gun control, Vela said he would make a decision on specific legislation when it’s proposed.
“I can’t help but think about what happened (at Sandy Hook),” Vela said. “At the same time you have to be mindful of the Second Amendment.”
The congressman also touched on immigration, calling for amnesty for the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants who’ve been in the country for years. Though border security often dominates the conversation, not enough is said about bringing economic prosperity to both sides of the border. Vela said he would work to promote manufacturing in the U.S. and Mexico to help reduce high unemployment along the border.
Also on the local front, Vela said he’ll do all he can to help bring a SpaceX commercial rocket launch site to Cameron County and support the University of Texas System proposal to merge UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American — thus creating access to a huge pot of funding for the Valley in the form of the Permanent University Fund.
Vela said he’s also committed to working with officials from the Port of Brownsville, Cameron County and the city to get the port’s ship channel widened and deepened to accommodate larger ships.
Reflecting on his new job, he said, “It’s been a very interesting and engaging experience being back home as a congressman for the first time.”
Vela added that he takes the obligation very seriously, and asked for patience as he gets his staff in place and offices operating.
“This is something I take with me every day,” he said. “I’m very grateful to be given the opportunity to represent you in Washington. We’re just getting started. I look forward to a very fruitful relationship with all the communities I represent.”