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KPBS Midday Edition

Q&A with Rep. Sara Jacobs about the new Congress

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Jacob Aere
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KPBS
Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-San Diego) delivers remarks at the county's Democratic Party election event in the downtown San Diego on Nov. 8, 2022.

After a long series of votes and political wrangling to select the new speaker of the House, the new Congress got underway this week. Congresswoman Sara Jacobs, D-San Diego, began her second term in office.

Jacobs, who represents California's 51st Congressional District, which includes parts of Rancho Peñasquitos, Sorrento Valley, Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch, Clairemont, Linda Vista, La Mesa El Cajon, Lemon Grove and Spring Valley, also became the youngest member in the Democratic leadership in this new Republican-led House.

Jacobs spoke to KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday. The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.

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You were sworn in early Saturday morning after a late night of votes to select the speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy. I'm curious, how different was your second swearing-in ceremony from your first?

Jacobs: Well, this is my second term now, and my family has still never gone to see me sworn in in person, and I still never gotten a ceremonial swearing-in picture with the speaker because my first swearing-in was during COVID-19 and then shortly thereafter we had January 6. And obviously, this swearing-in was delayed by Republican dysfunction. And so, I don't know what a normal swearing-in is supposed to be like, but I am pretty sure it's not supposed to happen at one in the morning.

How optimistic are you that this Congress will be able to work together to get legislation passed this year with Republicans holding the majority?

Jacobs: I think that the speaker fight is a real harbinger of things to come. And it's clear that in order to get the votes, Kevin McCarthy mortgaged the House Republican majority and mortgaged his own speakership to be able to. So we're going to see the weakest speaker in history, and it's clear that he gave in to a lot of demands from the far right extreme of his party, many of which we don't even know about yet. So I'm very concerned about what this means for the next two years. On the other hand, some of the rules that he agreed to, concessions that he made to his far right in the way the house governs itself, actually, it could be used by us and the few moderates that are left in the Republican Party to make sure that we do the bare minimum of governing. Like the debt limit, like passing a spending bill. And so I'm hopeful there'll be enough Republicans who want to work with us to do that. And in the meantime, we'll have to stand up for our values and our priorities and make sure that the Republican Party that's been overtaken by their far-right. extreme flank can't do harm to the American people.

Do you approach governing differently, being part of the minority party in the House?

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Jacobs: My focus has remained the same, whether I've been in the majority or the minority. I'm focused on making sure we are delivering for San Diego, that we are addressing the high cost of living for San Diego families. And while we're in the minority, I actually still think there's a lot we're going to be able to get done. I'm already working in a bipartisan way on the issues of military childcare and military housing. I think there's more we'll be able to do in a bipartisan way on housing and childcare in general. We know the issues that San Diegans are facing, and I'm going to stay laser-focused on working with whoever I have to work with to be able to deliver on them.

Speaking of which, later today, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria will be making his annual state of the city speech. In it, the availability and cost of housing is expected to be a major focus. You've cited data saying that San Diego is not getting its fair share of federal funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. How are you working to change that?

Jacobs: We're working directly with the Biden administration to try and adjust their funding formulas so that San Diego does get our fair share. We're also working on changing some of the definitional issues because part of the problem is that the way we know people experiencing homelessness experience it in San Diego isn't counted in the federal definition. For instance, if you're housing insecure, living on a couch, that is technically not counted for the federal numbers, even though we know that that is people experiencing homelessness. And so we're working with them on definitional issues. We're also working on a big push in a bipartisan way on what more we can be doing on family and children homelessness. And I should have more to announce on that in the coming months.

The number of homeless on the streets in downtown San Diego reached a new record high for the fifth month in a row in numbers released last week. First, I'd like your reaction to that.

Jacobs: It's incredibly sad to me how many people are experiencing homelessness. And especially when you think about the families and children who are experiencing homelessness, many for the first time, because the cost of living in San Diego has become so unaffordable. Even before what we're experiencing now. I can tell you that my constituents in San Diego were telling me that it was unaffordable to live in San Diego, whether it was housing, whether it was childcare, whether it was health care. And so we know these are huge issues, and we're going to stay focused here in Congress on figuring out what we can do from the federal level to make sure we're addressing it while recognizing that most of the solutions are actually at the state and local level.

All right, well, what more can be done to tackle the issue of homelessness in San Diego from the federal level? I mean, how do you see HUD funding helping?

Jacobs: One of the things I've been pushing for, and we almost got in the Build Back Better Act that wasn't, was additional federal housing money specifically to go to Section 8 housing vouchers. We know in San Diego, the waitlist for a Section 8 housing voucher is between eight and 14 years long, and by the time you get it, your situation has totally changed. Let alone once you get that voucher, there are very few places that actually will take it and accept it, even though there has been legislation passed. And so I personally think that Section 8 housing vouchers should be universal, that if you're eligible for them, you should receive them just like we have with other programs. But in the meantime, we're trying to get as much funding as we can to expand the Section 8 housing voucher program and make sure that the reimbursement rate for the Section 8 housing voucher is enough to actually be able to afford rent in San Diego.

On your website, you are reaching out to constituents to find out what their priorities are for the new Congress. What kind of responses have you gotten?

Jacobs: You'll be unsurprised to know that many of the responses are really around these high cost-of-living issues. We get a lot of people writing into us about child care. Even before the pandemic, we had a child care crisis in San Diego where we had about 60% of San Diego families who couldn't find or afford the child care that met their needs. And we know it's only gotten worse. We know about 500 childcare providers closed during the pandemic, and we are really at a crisis point in our child care system in San Diego, and it's affecting everything. It's affecting people's ability to go to work, which is affecting our labor force participation, which impacts prices. So I'm really focused on making sure that we're addressing this child care crisis. It's not good for the workers, it's not good for the families, and frankly, it's not good for the kids if we don't.

And on child care, there is $1.85 billion (in the most recent federal omnibus spending bill) intended to expand childcare access to low-income families. We spoke yesterday on Midday Edition about how state childcare subsidies are not making it to some of the neediest families. How do you see the federal dollars helping here in San Diego County?

Jacobs: Yeah, I'm really proud that I was able to get that additional funding for childcare into the omnibus legislation that we passed, the big federal spending legislation that we passed at the end of last year. It was a hard fight to get it in there. I led a letter of more than half of my colleagues in the Democratic Caucus to try and push for that, and I'm really glad we were able to do it. So what that will do is that it will give funding directly to the state to expand their voucher program. We know we have a very long waitlist in San Diego, so hopefully this additional funding can help address that waitlist issue. But also we're working to make sure that more families know of their eligibility for this so that they can work with the county, with the YMCA CRS, which is our local county referral service, to be able to get access to these vouchers so that more people who need it are able to get it.

President Biden signed the $1.7 trillion spending bill at the end of last year. You noted there's $800 million allocated for cities like San Diego to aid migrants and asylum seekers. Can you share how much of that money will come to the San Diego region and how it can be used to help?

Jacobs: We're still working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with FEMA, who the money will go through to figure out exactly where the money will be allocated between us and other border regions. But it was a big push of myself and others in the border communities to make sure we're getting that funding to the border communities to be able to help us address the situation. And working for us in San Diego I know we have some amazing nonprofit organizations who have been doing great work making sure that the people who are seeking their legal, lawful right to asylum are able to get processed and able to get the help that they need. And this funding will make sure they have the resources to continue doing that incredible work.

Now, as we mentioned, you are the youngest person in Democratic leadership. How will this new role help you to achieve these legislative priorities?

Jacobs: I'm incredibly honored that I was elected by my colleagues to represent them at the leadership table, and I am incredibly proud that it will mean an additional voice for San Diego in the House Democratic Caucus, especially as we are seeing the change in Democratic leadership and Speaker Pelosi becoming Speaker Emerita. We need to make sure we have strong California leadership. Um, so I'm working directly with Leader Hakeem Jeffries to make sure that our priorities are heard and that, you know, most of us young members, newer members, are actually getting what we need to be successful for our communities.