June 20 2012 09:48 AM

Republican member of Congress will face moderate Democrat Scott Peters in November

Is Brian Bilbray a moderate? Or is he just suddenly acting like one?
Photo by Medill DC

If you were watching San Diego County's five-member Congressional delegation in the weeks before and right after the June 5 primary election, you would've thought, strictly from a data perspective, that there was something wrong with Rep. Brian Bilbray.

As the House debated several enormous appropriations bills, Bilbray, usually a reliably conservative soldier, cast more than two dozen votes against his party that seemed, for a lack of a better word, erratic. While Bilbray previously argued for curbing spending, many of his votes opposed cuts that were supported overwhelmingly by a Republican majority. Other votes seemed to support causes normally associated with liberals.

Last November, Bilbray was courting tea-party voters, earning headlines like "For Rep. Bilbray, no sign of shift to center," from U-T San Diego and praise as a solid fiscal conservative from the likes of San Diego County Republican Party Chair Tony Krvaric. But something changed during the next seven months: Redistricting put Bilbray's new 52nd District in play, and an energetic primary battle resulted in the top two Democrats together earning roughly 5,500 more votes than Bilbray (their combined 45 percent of the vote trumped his 41 percent).

This November, Bilbray will face former San Diego City Council President and current Port of San Diego Commissioner Scott Peters, a moderate Democrat recently identified as a priority candidate by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Is Peters forcing Bilbray to shift to the left? Bilbray says no; he's always been a moderate. Whereas only a few months ago, Bilbray was emphasizing his Republican credentials, now he's wearing low ratings from conservative groups as a badge of centrist honor. He points to the Club for Growth, which gave him a 54-percent rating. Similarly, Americans for Prosperity handed Bilbray a C grade, while the Heritage Foundation gave him a 58 percent based on his votes. The magazine National Journal ranked Bilbray the 210th most conservative member of the House, which currently has 242 Republicans.

"I like to think most sides are right only about a little over half of the time," Bilbray says.

Not all the numbers support Bilbray's self-portrayal. The Washington Post's database of congressional votes calculates that Bilbray votes party-line 90 percent of the time, while GovTrack.us's political chart places Bilbray right smack in the middle of the main cluster of Republicans. Even Bil bray's decision to talk with CityBeat, after more than two-and-a-half years of unfulfilled interview requests, indicates a new willingness to connect with left-leaning voters. Then there are his recent positions on the appropriation bills.

Peters doesn't think Bilbray will succeed in disassociating himself with the Republican majority. For example, Peters expects much to be made of Bilbray's votes to cut funding to Planned Parenthood and his signing of Grover Norquist's much-maligned "Taxpayer Protection Pledge."

"I don't have an Etch A Sketch like Mr. Romney or Mr. Bilbray," Peters says. "Everybody knows Congress isn't working, and Brian's been there for 12 years and owns that record."

But Bilbray will also own his recent record, for better or worse. Many of his votes bring into question his credentials as a fiscal hawk, but just as many could bolster his pro-environment claims as a representative from a coastal district. To date, two of the country's top environmental groups, the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, have not yet endorsed in this race.

H.R. 5326 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2013

In May, Bilbray voted 10 times against attempts to reduce funding in this executive-branch appropriations bill, opposing proposals to cut expenses across the board by 1 percent and to reduce Department of Commerce and Economic Development salaries by $17.6 million. He fought an attempt to move $18 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to the Office of Justice Programs and another to cut $542,000 from the NOAA budget.

Bilbray also voted against his party's move to revert funding to the National Science Foundation (NSF) to pre-stimulus levels, a $1.2billion cut. Since 2009, $288 million in NSF money has been distributed to San Diego State University and UCSD (especially the Scripps Institution of Oceanography). This year, those universities have racked up $31 million in funds.

"A lot of these studies have to be done by the federal government and can't be done by anybody else," Bilbray says. "It's not just generating revenue in the district."

A separate amendment sought to bar NSF from spending money on political-science programs considered by House Republicans to be wasteful or politically motivated. To UCSD, that represented $640,000 in projects since 2008, including research into whether there's such thing as too many choices on the ballot, how genetic dispositions are affected by contentious politics and whether election monitoring effectively prevents voter fraud in Africa. Presented with some of the projects, Bilbray acknowledged that some might be frivolous by conservative standards.

"That kind of stuff is out there and should in my opinion be cut," he says. But he defends the funding overall. "You look at the whole package… and you balance out how much is positive, how much is negative and you make the judgment call on that."

Bilbray was also one of a handful of Republicans to vote against eliminating funds for the U.S. Census' annual American Community Survey, which is used to allocate federal funds to local communities. He also sought to protect $21 million in funding for an "Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia," or AMTech, a new public-private partnership proposed by the White House to fund research and development.

Bilbray says he believes that enough money was cut from the budget when these bills went through committee that certain programs could be preserved.

"There was a conscious effort that we should be zeroing things out right now," Bilbray says. "I'm not saying we're not going to reach a point where we have to zero this out, but I thought there was enough of a concerted effort [to reduce spending]."

H.R. 5325: Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act

Bilbray is Congress' loudest champion of algae-fuels technology, an ardent opponent of ethanol and a believer that "clean coal" is as much an oxymoron as "safe cigarettes."

"That's why people get confused," he says. "‘Where are you on this, Bilbray?' I say, ‘I'm with the science, not with the politics.'"

He's also with keeping the money flowing. With amendments to this bill, Republicans attempted to slash the budget for the Department of Energy, particularly funds set aside for energy efficiency and renewable energy. Two days after the June 5 election, Bilbray voted against renewable-energy cuts six times, ranging from an amendment to reduce funding across the board by 1 percent to a proposal to eliminate the program altogether with a $1.45-billion cut.

Meanwhile, Bilbray joined Democrats in supporting an amendment to increase funding to the renewable-energy program by $50 million while reducing fossilfuel research and development by $100 million. He also voted to transfer $10 million away from nuclear-weapons programs.

Bills and tariff suspensions

In the month before the election, Bilbray also introduced nine new bills. Two were health-related, one streamlining the Food and Drug Administration review process and another channeling approximately $54 million per year in tanning-bed fees to skin-cancer research. Last year, Bilbray had skin cancer removed from his lip, while his daughter continues to struggle with Stage 3 melanoma.

The other seven bills are related to tariffs on products imported into the U.S. Six of them either reduce or suspend the tariff charged on golf-club heads. Currently, the U.S. charges lower tariffs on completed golf clubs than golf-club components, a policy that Bilbray says discourages sporting-goods manufacturers from assembling the products domestically. Although Bilbray says he's never played golf in his life, this is the third time he's pursued tariff suspensions for golf manufacturers. Bilbray points to Callaway Golf in Carlsbad as one of the businesses directly impacted by the legislation.

The final piece, which would extend a tariff suspension on Liquid Crystal Displays, would directly benefit San Diego-based Sony Electronics. When the tariff was first suspended in 2006, the U.S. International Trade Commission estimated it would save Sony, and cost the U.S. government, $22.5 million per year in customs fees by 2009. Bilbray couldn't readily explain the rationale behind the bill.

"That one is some crazy little technical thing that I couldn't even give you the details on it," he said.

Email davem@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on Twitter @DaveMaass.


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