SAN BENITO — U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela said entering Congress was like entering his freshman year of college.
“When I was first elected to Congress I had practiced law for 22 years and my involvement in politics really was from the outside. I never really had the guts to be the guy up in the front,” he said.
For Vela, entering Congress was a major wake-up call about how government works.
“You go in thinking you can move mountains and you realize there are three branches of government, bureaucracy in each of those branches and the division of Congress.”
Yesterday, those were some of the comments he made to members of the community and business community during the San Benito’s Chamber of Commerce weekly “Coffee With” session.
Vela prompted the session’s largest turnout so far with about 75 people.
To start off, Vela provided guests an inside look into his position.
Vela, a Rio Grande Valley native, was elected in 2012 to represent the 34th Congressional District which is anchored here in Cameron County, in the southernmost tip of Texas, and runs nearly 300 miles north to Gonzales County.
In Congress, he has been a strong advocate for immigrant rights, education programs including Head Start and Pell Grants for college students, and the community’s federal health care centers.
Vela currently is focused on bringing peace and security to the neighbors in Matamoros and Reynosa, and he is working to bring jobs and economic development to South Texas through many efforts including transforming the Port of Brownsville into a competitive, deep-water port.
“Things in Congress move pretty slowly,” he said. “At the end of the day there is little legislation going on.”
About 1 percent of the bills that get filed in Congress rarely get out of the House of Representatives.
Most of Vela’s time, he said, is consumed with his agency-related work and what his team does in the district offices.
“Most members of Congress are on at least two committees,” Vela said.
Vela sits on the House Agriculture Committee and the Homeland Security Committee.
The Agriculture Community today faces many challenges.
“Right now, we have threats to citrus with citrus greening, the Mexican fruit fly and fever tick,” he said.
“Those of us who represent producers who face those issues have to figure out ways to nudge our way through the legislature so that there is funding to do the research to eradicate those things.”
On a district level, Vela said his local offices, which are located in Brownsville, San Benito, Weslaco and Alice, receive between 20 to 30 calls per day.
“Sixty percent of those calls are from veterans who need help navigating the veteran’s clinical system,” he said. “IRS and immigration make up the rest of the calls.”
Veterans, Vela said make up an important part of his job. He said he tries to support any endeavors helping veterans obtain the services they need.
Cameron County Commissioner David Garza asked, “What do you think is our biggest challenge locally to move our region forward economically?”
Overall, Vela said the region is headed in a very positive direction, citing The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, medical school and SpaceX as contributing factors to progress.
“I believe that the merger of the two universities and the new medical school in the long run is going to be a tremendous accomplishment and move the region forward,” Vela said.
Also, with the implementation of I-69 and the new causeway to South Padre Island, Vela said it all looks very promising.
Some of the challenges Vela said are experienced by him and other elected officials.
“When we get into situation where our local communities are not on the same page, it makes it very difficult to move forward on a project,” Vela said.
“If no one is on the same page, it is very difficult for me to go to the decision-maker and give them an answer.”