On Government, Service, Politics, and the Super Committee: A Conversation with Xavier Becerra and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar

Illustration of the chaos between Democrat and Republican parties in the capital
Illustration by Terry Allen

These are busy days for Representative Xavier Becerra, JD ’84 (BA ’80). Media appearances, phone conferences
 with constituents, interviews with his alumni magazine. 
Sure, the life of a public official is always hectic, and
 Becerra is dedicated to the job of serving the people of the
 31st District of Los Angeles, something he has done since he
 was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1992. But his appointment to the Joint Select Committee to reduce the deficit, the so-called “Super Committee,” has added not simply more work and meetings but a weight of pressure that is new.

A lot is riding on this assignment. Where the president and the leaders of both houses failed to find agreement, this group of 12 must do so. Or else. The task is Herculean: to negotiate a $1.5 trillion reduction in the deficit, unearthing savings and revenue increases that will be palatable to a majority on both sides of the aisle and pass the Senate and House. If that weren’t enough, there’s a ticking clock to remind them that an explosion of blunt cuts is awaiting the nation if they do not agree by the deadline of November 23.

Becerra is taking it in stride. “We have a job to do and we need to do it. My colleagues and I have been here long enough to know how to do it,” he said as he sat down to the interview that follows. This is the kind of straight talk that Becerra is known for. He is a liberal Democrat with clear positions on important issues such as immigration, civil rights, education, and the role he 
believes that government can and should play in offering opportunities to all Americans, particularly those without the means to buy them. He is an advocate at heart, and it is a personal place from which he advocates. The people he represents in Los 
Angeles are his people. The son of Mexican immigrants who worked hard tending fields in Sacramento and then in the 
shipyards of Los Angeles, Becerra knows the real challenges to making it in America and the dreams and aspirations parents have for their children to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Surely Becerra’s achievements have gone beyond his 
parents’ wildest dreams. He did well enough in high school to earn a place at Stanford University. Once there, he discovered his calling to public service when he volunteered to tutor 
disadvantaged kids—kids with hardworking parents like his own. The experience inspired him to go to Stanford Law School and to earn his JD. “I could see clearly how important advocates are in our society, how having someone in your corner could change your life’s path,” he says.

A rising star in the Democratic Party, he is a favorite of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, serving as vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus and helping to set priorities and drive the legislative decision-making process. He’s a member of the powerful House Committee on Ways and Means—the first Latino member—and he is ranking member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, where many of the issues at the center of today’s political debate sit, including formulating our nation’s tax, Social Security, Medicare, trade and income security laws. In 2010, Becerra served on the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. He is a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and a member of the Executive Committee of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. In 2011, he was appointed to serve on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and 
Culture Council, whose members include former first lady Laura Bush and Oprah Winfrey. Not surprisingly, President Obama offered him a role in the administration as the ambassador for trade. But Becerra turned it down, concluding that he would be more useful staying right where he was—in the House, advocating for his constituents.

More about Becerra.

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar (MA ’96, PhD ’00), professor of law and Deane F. Johnson Faculty Scholar, has an easy rapport with Congressman Becerra, testament to their shared passion for government service. They’ve met while walking the halls of power—both immersed in issues of the day, though from different vantage points. While Becerra is a man of the people, stumping for causes he believes in, Cuéllar is a scholar whose wisdom is sought to craft 
positions and policy that make sense and will work.

A member of the Stanford Law School faculty since 2001, Cuéllar has made commuting between Stanford and Washington, D.C., part of his life, serving in the Obama and Clinton administrations and frequently advising and testifying before lawmakers. From early 2009 through the summer of 2010, he served as special assistant to the president for justice and regulatory policy at the White House, where he led the Domestic Policy Council’s work on criminal justice and drug policy, public health and food safety, regulatory reform, borders and immigration, civil rights, and rural and agricultural policy. Among other issues, Cuéllar worked on stricter food safety standards, the FDA’s regulatory science initiative, expanding support for local law enforcement and community-based crime prevention, enhancing regulatory transparency, and strengthening border coordination and immigrant integration. Before working at the White House, he co-chaired the Obama-Biden transition’s Immigration Policy Working Group. During the Clinton administration he was a senior advisor to the under secretary for enforcement at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, where he focused on countering financial crime, improving border 
coordination, and enhancing anticorruption measures.

Cuéllar turned in his frequent flyer card in 2010, returning to Stanford to focus on teaching and taking up a new opportunity co-directing the interdisciplinary Center for International Security and Cooperation. But he still has one foot left in D.C. In July 2010, President Obama appointed him to the Council of the Administrative Conference of the United States, an independent agency charged with improving the efficiency and fairness of federal regulatory programs. He also serves on the Department of Education’s National Commission on Educational Equity and Excellence and the Department of State’s advisory subcommittee on economic sanctions.

Watch Cuellar discuss the Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation.

The interview that follows was recorded on September 13—right after the first meeting of the Super Committee.

Cuéllar: You’re a popular man these days.
Becerra: Or unpopular depending on your perspective.

You probably get as many congratulations as condolences.

I want to start by thanking you for speaking with us on behalf of your wonderful alma 
mater, at which I’m now back on the faculty.
You’re welcome. Are you missing D.C. at all?

I am. On the other hand, I’m back with my family, so no more commuting across the country every weekend. And I am still engaged and remain involved. But I can also tell this is a particularly tough time to be in Washington.
Well, you’ve got to keep coming up here every once in a while. We need your talents.

You’re very kind. So, let’s start with your own background. You were the first person in your family to graduate from college. What inspired you to do well in school and reach for a 
Stanford education?
Even though my parents had never been to college, they instilled in my siblings and me this sense that we had to keep working, we had to keep improving ourselves. And so, as the next step, it was almost naturally going to be college—even though I didn’t have much background in terms of applying or preparing for it. For example, I never took a study course for the SAT. By chance I learned about the PSAT, because some friends were going to take it and so I figured I better do that too. I didn’t apply to a whole bunch of colleges and I was, you know, very fortunate obviously to get into Stanford. But it was the next step and I think my parents did a remarkable job of just making me feel like it was the responsible thing to do. That it was possible for me to do it.

When did you know you wanted to be a lawyer?
I can tell you it was after I took chemistry. But really, it was after taking on some work at Stanford tutoring young, underprivileged kids and seeing the need to advocate for them. In those days, the 1970s, it was tough for kids who were not proficient in English to get good educational services. Advocating for them made me realize that there are a lot of people who need to have advocates. And a lot of these folks, like my parents, never had a chance to get educated; they worked very hard and they deserved to have those opportunities. But left to their own devices they were so busy working and raising their families they’d never get to that.

When you were here at Stanford, were there 
particular students or professors or alumni who made a lasting impression on you?
The professor I loved while I was at Stanford and I’ve since grown to love more now, looking back as an adult and as a parent, is Paul Brest [professor of law, emeritus, and former dean]. I thought it was cool to see a guy with such great values teaching, imparting those values to this generation of leaders coming out of Stanford Law School.

He’s a remarkable guy.
He is.

What motivated you to pursue a career in public service?
It was about wanting to advocate for people who deserved more than they were getting. I practiced law before I ran for office, and I could see how I was doing good and doing well as a lawyer, but also I saw that there were ways to do good and well faster, with a bigger impact. And policy was that way. Instead of dealing with one case or one human story at a time, you deal with humanity all at once.

This brings us to your very interesting career as a lawmaker. Taking a step back, how would you explain your job to somebody who knows nothing about American government, somebody from Mars maybe? How would you describe it?
You try to absorb everything that’s been said to you, everything you’re observing in society, and its trajectory. You have to assemble all of that and try to come up with the way forward. And so if you do it right, you’re listening and then applying all you’ve learned and certainly your own experiences and values to come up with a plan. And then you work like a horse trying to convince others that you’ve got the right road map—and finally you try to put it into practice.

Which leads to my next question: What is an example of one of the hardest choices that you recall making as a member of Congress?
In my first term as a congressman we had a tough vote to extend unemployment benefits to Americans who had lost their jobs through no fault of their own. One of the proposals to pay for this was to reduce services for individuals on SSI, Supplemental Security Income, which is a program for aged, blind, and disabled people—but targeting immigrants, not undocumented, but legal immigrants. And so while they paid for the services, they were going to be deprived of them simply because of their status. I raised objection to that and at one point it looked like we were going to succeed in changing the proposal, but in the end we couldn’t. I had a flare-up with then chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Dan Rostenkowski, and as a result he got upset with me and changed the proposal back. So I had to make a decision on how to vote. And I ended up voting for it. It was a very tough vote. But it was also a learning experience for me.

What did you learn from these experiences, 
particularly thinking through the choices you had to make on the vote?
Regarding the unemployment benefit vote, I knew I had to do something to help Americans on the verge of losing their home and their way of life. It’s particularly tough when helping one group hurts another, when budget constraints force tough choices. There was from my perspective a provision in that proposal that was damaging and quite honestly anti-American, but it affected a much smaller segment of the population than the unemployed. In the end I had to say—I am still here, I’ll still be here tomorrow, I’ll live on and fight to try to do it the right way.

This brings us to the challenges that you now face as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, the so-called Super 
Committee. As we were saying, you probably get as many condolences as congratulations for your membership in that committee. I will 
just note that there was a very deliberate 
process, no doubt, in deciding who would represent the House and the Senate in this committee and that there are Stanford Law School alumni on both the Senate delegation and the House delegation represented on the committee.
That’s right. Senator Max Baucus, LLB ’67 (BA ’64), is also serving with me on the committee.

The challenges you face are staggering. Not only do you need to address the country’s long-term fiscal challenges and public debt but you also need to bridge a vast divide that many observers believe has grown wider in the past year. how are discussions going?
I think we’re progressing. We had our first substantive hearing today with the director of the Congressional Budget Office and I think we have put in place an infrastructure to engage in meaningful negotiation. So the test will be whether we are willing to be open, transparent, and negotiate without preconditions so that we can all feel comfortable trying to reach a balanced solution.

How will the committee approach some of the 
national and homeland security issues that have big budget implications, such as food safety and the Pentagon budget?
We’ll view those items as what they are: investments. And I believe that we will do nothing in this committee that would undermine our national security or prevent us from continuing to improve our national security. And I believe that we can do that and still find savings in every corner of the government.

Part of what makes the committee interesting is its unusual institutional structure, with automatic cuts to entitlements, defense, and other areas going into effect if Congress doesn’t enact its recommendations. what is your take on this structure? is it going to work?
It’s both good and bad that there is this blunt guillotine waiting at the end of the road should the committee not succeed. Good in the sense that it certainly inspires action, bad in the sense that if you have intransigence in the committee, the people who will pay the price are the folks who face the blunt end of the guillotine, not the members on this committee. There’s a very good chance that we may feel the blunt guillotine of electoral politics in November if we don’t do anything, but the actual hit to humanity is something that most of the members wouldn’t feel the way most Americans would. There’s a lot riding on 12 people. Whether that’s the best way to do it is now academic because we’re doing it and we should treat it as if failure is not an option, so that we can get something done. And I think quite honestly that we have all been around long enough that we’ve seen every shape and every design of the wheel that there is, so while we have a short amount of time to work with, fewer than three months, we’re not reinventing the wheel. We should be able to put a good set of tires on this vehicle and get it running.

Let me turn to another issue that I know is of great importance to you: immigration. What are your reflections on where we are on this issue and what you expect to see in the next year?

Yeah, it helps to have the lens of experience when talking about some of these very passionate issues—if I didn’t have 19 years of congressional tenure, I would feel very disturbed and puzzled by where we are on immigration today. I was elected right around the time of Prop 187 in California, which was a very harsh measure against immigrants that the Supreme Court ultimately found unconstitutional. So I’ve seen some bad policy overturned. We have made tremendous progress since 1994 in how we view the issue of immigration and immigrants and the solutions to fixing our broken immigration system. But, we’re still trying to get those solutions in place in a comprehensive way, which is what’s sad. So, we have made progress—we have a better sense of what we need to do. It’s now about unsticking the political gears so we can get it done.

Meanwhile, a lot of people in our country are hurting as a result of this broken immigration system. I can tell you about the number of very well-educated scientists and engineers who received their training in the United States and would love to make this their home but are forced to leave when they’re going into their most productive years. So we’re educating talented professionals—scientists and engineers who want to stay here—for many of our competitor nations. I can tell you about the construction worker and the farm worker who work for decades toiling, helping to put food on our tables and pave our roads, work that we sometimes take for granted. I know the pride in their faces shows when they realize that their child is going to go to college and have opportunities that they did not have. Yet they still have to live in the shadows because the broken immigration system hasn’t allowed them, many proud parents and contributing members of our society, to be out publicly. And I can tell you about the American people who, in this time when 14 million or so Americans are out of work, are trying to figure out if the immigration policy we have is helping or not. Many of the unemployed are concerned that the immigration system is hurting their efforts to find employment.

And your response underscores how much two of the areas where you have spent a great deal of your career working intensely, economic policy and immigration, are connected.
Yes, without a doubt.

I want to ask you to reflect a little on what advice you might offer to Stanford law students today who look at what you’ve done and feel inspired to pursue a career in public service.
I always tell younger folks like those at Stanford that essentially they can be leaders for this country if they choose to be. And while they have this phenomenal opportunity to be among the folks who will determine the course of our nation, they should enjoy it. Don’t let it be a chore to be a leader. There are so many things that we forget to do because we are so consumed by this opportunity to lead. They should not forsake family life. They should not forgo travel to places far and unknown. And they should remember to return to the places that made it possible for them to excel. I think if we ground ourselves in what got us here, to leadership positions, and if we always look to smile at what we’re about to take on, even though it’s the toughest task in front of us, then it will show in how we lead. Your demeanor shows in your behavior. To me if you’re happy, you show it; you’re ready to just jump in. But, if something about you is unsettled, people invariably spot it. So you may as well be happy if you’re going to have a tough task; you may as well just take on the challenge and enjoy it as much as you can. It makes no sense to already have something difficult to do and then not enjoy doing it.

That sounds to me like good advice for law 
students, and for my little 7-year-old as she goes off to second grade. I want to close by asking you about another matter of pressing national concern, which has to do with the Dodgers, who beat the Padres a couple days ago 4 to 2 for the eighth straight win in nine games. I wonder if you think Congress has anything to learn from the Dodgers?
Now we’re getting into the important stuff. As a diehard Angeleno fan whether it’s the Dodgers or my Lakers, you know, for many of us, our nation sometimes rises and falls on what our teams do. When the Lakers didn’t quite get there last year, I think Southern California, already in a basin, fell a little lower. But I will say this about the Dodgers—they’ve overcome some adversity on and off the field. And one of the greatest inspirations that a young child can take from athletics is in watching a role model just pull out a victory when no one thought it could happen; this gives a child the belief that he or she too can dream of one day either hitting the home run, working in the White House, or finding the cure for a dreaded disease. And so, I think it’s important that we always give children this opportunity to enjoy life. And if they can participate in athletics, they can understand what it means to be competitive, but to enjoy it too. That doesn’t change when we’re adults. You had better know how to be competitive and enjoy it at the same time.

Well said. Thank you so much.
You’re welcome.