By Carla Marinucci
They called it the “do-nothing Congress,” but as a member of the 113th session of the House of Representatives, Democratic freshman Rep. Eric Swalwell says it was possible to get plenty done — with “small steps” and cooperation from the other side.
Swalwell, at 34 the youngest member of the California delegation, got three bills through the House and two of them signed into law — more than any other freshman. He also racked up nearly 500,000 miles on the job, returning to his East Bay district just about every week for events with constituents.
This month, he could be found toiling at a Pleasanton Christmas tree lot for one of his “In Your Shoes” events, in which he works alongside constituents to learn firsthand about their concerns.
A couple of weeks later, he was in Antarctica as part of a congressional fact-finding mission on climate change.
“My approach is I want to cover as much ground in the district as possible,” said Swalwell, speaking from Washington as he prepared for his trip into 30-below weather with other House science committee members of both parties.
“I look forward to working collaboratively on how we can address one of the most important issues of our time,” the Dublin Democrat said.
Talking to voters
Still, Swalwell said some of the most productive moments in his first term came from his regular travels to the warmer climes of the East Bay and his talks with district voters.
One time, he said, “I was knocking on doors in Hayward and I met a Filipino man who was very, very distraught. I asked him if everything was OK, and he said no,” Swalwell recalled.
The man’s brother was back in the Philippines, which had just been devastated by Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda), and he was unable to get in touch with him.
“I realized that this was something that was really affecting people in the Philippines — and it was affecting people in my district,” Swalwell said.
About 6,000 people in the 15th Congressional District, stretching from San Ramon to Livermore to Hayward, are Filipino American — one of the highest concentrations in the Bay Area. Many had relatives who had been affected by the super typhoon, which leveled 1 million homes and killed at least 6,300 people in the Philippines in November 2013.
Tax break for giving
Swalwell first helped generate aid to try to find missing family members of U.S. citizens. Then he wrote and sponsored the Charitable Giving Assistance Act, to allow taxpayers who made donations to efforts in the Philippines through April 15 to claim them as charitable deductions on their 2013 returns.
But Swalwell says he doesn’t deserve the real credit for the legislation. It came about “because I talked to a constituent,” he said. “It was not an issue I would have found on my own.”
As one of Congress’ younger members, Swalwell has also been active on social media, where his penchant for documenting his travels — specifically, tweeting photos of his actual steps onto departing planes — has spawned new Twitter hashtag terminology, #swalwelling.
Swalwell said his social media contacts have also yielded results in more serious matters, as when he learned of the plight of Americans stranded in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, last year when Hurricane Odile swept through.
“I stumbled upon some constituents on Twitter who were tweeting me they didn’t have access to food and water,” Swalwell said. “I started direct messaging them and we found about 70 people just from the East Bay who were down there and stranded.”
Swalwell’s team discovered that “there were 10,000 Americans” affected in all, but “the State Department had just 30 people on the ground.”
With no time to write a bill, Swalwell turned to fellow members of the United Solutions Caucus — a group of 38 freshmanDemocrats and Republicans that he co-founded to encourage new members to “reach across the aisle.”
Fellow caucus members helped him collect nearly 100 lawmakers’ signatures urging Secretary of State John Kerry to back emergency assistance.
Swalwell said the successful bipartisan effort provides a road map for what lies ahead.
“The reason that the Bay Area, especially Silicon Valley, has led the way in innovation is that it’s a collaborative environment,” he said.
But “we are deeply, deeply mired in an era of incremental government — and that is what is so frustrating. I go home and see people thinking big, and I go back to Washington and see the opposite.”
Swalwell has gained notice from veteran Democrats in the House leadership in his short tenure. He was selected to be a member of the party’s Steering and Policy Committee, and was asked by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to nominate her for re-election to the post when Congress returned from the midterm elections.
Handily re-elected to his second term in November, Swalwell said he’s ready to apply his freshman lessons during what looks like an even more challenging 114th Congress — with potential government shutdowns, more partisan bickering and GOP push-back on issues such as immigration loom.
He’s prepared, he said, to stick to the basics: “You listen to the people, you learn, you act.”