POLITICO Pro Q&A: Rep. Scott Peters
Rep. Scott Peters may be finishing up only his second term, but he is the Democrats' point person on the House Armed Services Committee in defending the Pentagon's renewable energy policies.
The military's use of renewable energy has drawn fire from Republicans, who argue it's more expensive than conventional fuels. But Peters, whose military-heavy San Diego district is home to a handful of Navy and Marine bases, argues there's a solid "business case" to be made for renewables.
"There's no sense I have the military is a bunch of treehuggers," the California Democrat says. "They're trying to defend the country and protect the warfighters. ... It's easy for folks who are partisan about energy issues to argue with a university professor or even the secretary of energy, but when it's the commandant or the [chief of naval operations] talking, I think it comes with a little more authority."
Peters, 58, also clearly relishes the role of booster of a greener armed forces. "We launched the Great Green Fleet off of Coronado with a ship powered in part by biofuels from beef fat," he touts. "I always say if someone gives you a hard time about eating a steak, tell them you're being a patriot."
Peters is also using his perch to argue for other San Diego priorities, including increased procurement of unmanned aerial vehicles and beefing up area military facilities for the pivot to Asia. He also co-chairs the House Special Operations Forces Caucus and has taken an interest in programs that assist troops transitioning into civilian life.
Earlier this year, Peters bucked the majority of his party in voting to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, which President Barack Obama has threatened to veto for shortchanging the Pentagon's warfunding account to fund other programs. But with his growing influence on the Armed Services panel, Peters was appointed to the NDAA conference committee for the first time in July.
He is bullish about the prospects in a new administration for a budget deal to address a host of thorny issues, including reversing planned cuts to the defense budgets. "I think people might be getting the sense that there's more risk in not doing something than there is in crossing the aisle and making a deal," he says.
POLITICO spoke with Peters by phone about his defense priorities. Here are some edited excerpts:
You seem to be one of the more vocal Democrats on Armed Services when it comes to energy policy. How did you wind up with that role?
I've tried to build my service in Congress around San Diego. ... The military's about 20 percent of our jobs, a $35 million annual impact. And then innovation. And part of that is Qualcomm's obviously our largest private employer. ... And I also have an interest in climate policy. ... The military, the Department of Defense I think, is the largest [consumer] of energy in the world and so it offers a place where we can be smart, maybe save some money at the same time we support the mission.
The military's use of renewables have been challenged by Republicans on the Hill. What's your response to that?
Well I take my cues from the Navy and Marines to be honest with you. I had a meeting with the commandant in 2013. General [James] Amos wanted to meet all the new members. And so he comes into my office and he brought in a bunch of military brass. I was very impressed with myself having the leaders of the Marines at my table and wondered what they wanted to talk about, you know, whether it's going to be training, equipment, staffing, sequester. And he turns to me and he says, "Congressman ... I want to talk to you about solar energy." And I thought, well OK dude, it's your meeting. I didn't know what he wanted to talk about.
One of the most dangerous things we do, obviously, is move large amounts of petroleum across the desert and ... if those convoys are attacked we lose soldiers, we lose Marines, and as a consequence of that risk we spend a lot of effort protecting those convoys and he pointed out that he wants to move away from that. So he's powering his bunkers with solar panels. He's got solar panels on backpacks that help power small appliances, replace the heavier batteries the troops used to carry. And it's occurred to me that it's a business case for the military. There's no sense I have the military is a bunch of treehuggers. They're trying to defend the country and protect the warfighters.
The same is true with the Navy. The Navy got tired of [oil] price spikes ... so they decided to go half renewable. ... We've announced the biggest purchase of ... renewable power by any federal department in Coronado. ... We launched the Great Green Fleet off of Coronado with a ship powered in part by biofuels from beef fat. I always say if someone gives you a hard time about eating a steak, tell them you're being a patriot.
And then they're building these hybrid ships that operate like a hybrid car ... and they work better for the Navy. They're more durable and more reliable. ... They're taking on renewable energy not because of some ideological position, but because there's a business case. ... It's easy for folks who are partisan about energy issues to argue with a university professor or even the secretary of energy, but when it's the commandant or the [chief of naval operations] talking, I think it comes with a little more authority. ... That's the authority that I use.
Obviously San Diego has a very large military footprint and a large veterans population. How does that affect the issues you've decided to focus on as a HASC member?
San Diego identifies itself as a proud partner in the national defense. We're a Navy town and a Marine Corps town, but we're also conscious that the federal government is making tremendous investments here and we want to make sure we're supporting that. So I think I have seven different military bases just in my district. We see this pivot to the Pacific coming. We have to provide the infrastructure for that and one of the things I've been concentrating on here too - as a co-chair of the Special Ops Caucus - I want to see that the SEALS are taken care of. And I saw when I went to Ft. Bragg and to Hurlburt Field that the Army and Air Force bases have been upgraded, but the field in Coronado still needs that support, so we're going to be making some investments there.
We're going to be making some investments in Miramar to house new strike fighters, and then we're also supportive of the contracts that ... General Dynamics NASSCO has earned to build some of the new oilers. And so there's a tremendous amount of investment that happens here. It's important to our economy and we think we do pretty good work as well.
You have pushed to increase procurement of UAVs that are built in the area as well.
There's a lot of cost effectiveness advantages to unmanned systems. I think that the department is beginning to understand that. I think a lot of us think that there could be more rapid adoption. I've heard that people think there's a cultural issue with that among the flying community, but I do think that we're seeing that there's a lot of performance advantages that unmanned systems provide and a lot of cost effectiveness that we really need to seek as we build a military budget each year.
You voted for both the NDAA and defense appropriations bills on the House floor, despite opposition from most members of your party. Why did you break with them on those bills?
Most of my colleagues were upset with the budget game that was played around [the Overseas Contingency Operations fund]. We've left a hole that needs to be filled next April. I raised objections to that and I share my Democratic colleagues' concern about it. It's just my choice not to take that out on the rest of the operations. I mean, I think that the better thing is just to fund our defense budget, although I think we would be more responsible for us to deal with that hole now and not to leave it. I think given the choice ... face that issue or not fund the defense budget at all, I was inclined to support our troops.
How do you think Democrats and Republicans can bridge that funding gap?
It's interesting. ... I heard the same frustration among the Republicans on our committee that we've heard from Democrats about sequester and, you know, the meat ax approach to budget cuts in the Budget Control Act. What I haven't seen is the willingness to break with party leadership to make a change. I wonder whether the presidential race is the kind of thing that can ... get some folks to work across the aisle. ... I think people might be getting the sense that there's more risk in not doing something than there is in crossing the aisle and making a deal.
So do you think there could be a window at the start of the next administration for a long-term budget deal?
I absolutely do. I think it's a very important time to take advantage of that. We need presidential leadership. I think if Secretary Clinton's elected she'll understand these issues, she'll understand the danger ... and I think it'll be a good test for us. ... I would like to see a grand bargain at the beginning of next year that deals with a lot of the budget issues, but certainly the sequester and the effect on the military budget is something we have to tackle and I think we will.
This is your first time on the NDAA conference committee. Are there any other priorities you'll be pushing?
Everyone talks about it, but acquisition reform is really critical. What I see around here is this Catch-22 where the private sector is developing these tools that the military doesn't know exist and, under the current system, the military doesn't know how to ask for. So I've seen a couple systems, you know, for communications or for transporting troops or small unmanned systems that if the military doesn't know that they exist, they can't ask for them under the requisition process. So we've got to get to a point where the military is bidding for outcome rather than for product and that we would frame these things around how would you help us solve this problem. And we're just a long way from that.
You've had two close elections for your House seat. How do you like your chances this year?
It's a better landscape than it has been. People know me better and I've got good support from across the community. ... I'll never have a safe election. I think I start with 42 percent of people voting against me, and so I've got to hold on to the rest for dear life. And it looks like my opponent will be well funded again. I feel like I match the district well and people understand now after almost four years where I come from and how I'm really trying to connect what happens in D.C. with what's needed in San Diego. I like it better each time so far.