Freshman Congressman and Turlock native Josh Harder is halfway through his first 100 days in office, and after making it through the longest government shutdown in U.S. history during that time is hoping to ward off a second congressional crisis while making headway with legislation that benefits the Central Valley.
Harder is one of 101 first-time U.S. Representatives — a class that is the most racially diverse and includes more female members to ever be elected to the House, as well as one of the youngest, with a record 32 Millennials, Harder included, sworn into office this year. These are things that give Harder hope moving forward, and he sat down with the Journal on Friday to answer a few questions about his new job in Washington, D.C. and some of the issues that the Central Valley faces.
Q: When was the moment it really sunk in that you were a U.S. Congressman?
A: The State of the Union night when I look around and see every U.S. Ambassador, every member of the U.S. Senate, every member of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Cabinet — I mean, really the entirety of the fed gov in one room and for some reason I was allowed in that room and have a seat was pretty amazing. It was deeply humbling. I wish the speech had been a little bit different than the one that was given…it was still an amazing room to be in.
Q: What’s been the most awe-inspiring moment during your time in Congress so far?
A: I got a chance to sit down with John Lewis, who, I don’t know if you know much about him, but he is like a Civil Rights legend. He was a member of the March on Washington, was one of the speakers next to Martin Luther King, Jr. He’s somebody that has spent the entirety of his life fighting for justice in this country and he has the exact same vote in Congress that I do and it’s just wild. It feels like his vote should be a little more weighted towards his experience and contribution. I got the chance to sit down with him and talk to him about his story…there’s a John Lewis comic book and I got some of them signed for some of the constituents around the area that really were amazed by him.
Q: What friends have you made among your fellow legislators?
A: It’s a really impressive freshmen class and I think there’s a lot of folks who are really exciting in it. I would say the members of Congress who have really taken me under their wing…Zoe Lofgren is in San Jose, she’s the Chair of the California Caucus but she’s been really helpful with helping me navigate it. I’ve become pretty good friends with this guy named Pete Aguilar down in Southern California who’s sort of an up-and-comer from a very similar district. He helped campaign for me…he’s sort of a really young, amazing legislator that’s got a real future. And then the third that I’d mention is a woman, Cheri Bustos, who is the fifth- or sixth-ranking Democrat now, the head of the campaign arm of the Congressional Democratic Party, and somebody who represents a district where Trump won, so very agricultural, very rural, similar in some respects to our constraints, and she has done an amazing job delivering for her community over the last decade and is the exact type of legislator I hope to be when I grow up.
Q: What aspect of Congress has surprised you the most?
A: The partisan indoctrination…I’ll put it this way: if you do not actively work in Congress, you could spend 100 percent of your time only with people that already agree with you on every single issue, or on most issues. My schedule, generally, at 9 a.m. I’m meeting with the entire Democratic House Caucus, 10 a.m. you meet with your committee members, especially the Democratic members of your committees, at noon you have lunch with the California Democratic Caucus, not the seven Republicans, just the 46 Democrats. Literally, you could go through hour by hour of your entire day, and if you’re not actively trying, you could never have a conversation with a Republican in Congress, and that is just deeply wrong. I think that’s really frustrating to somebody like me.
Q: Where’s your favorite spot to grab lunch in D.C.?
A: I don’t have a really good answer to that one, but I can tell you the tacos are a lot better in California than they are in D.C. There’s a good spot you can go to right out of the floor of Congress called the Speaker’s Balcony that has a view of the entire National Mall. If you watch presidential inaugurations, it’s the view that the president has right above the dais. You get an entire view of Washington, and you can only go if you’re a member of Congress or a guest of a member of Congress, and that’s a cool place to sit down and eat.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of the job so far?
A: I think the best part of the job, and the most challenging, is the fact that a member of Congress is sort of always a mile wide and an inch deep, and the good part of that is you get to truly experience every single issue that affects a community like ours. In the last 24 hours alone, I’ve spent time with our homeless population at the Gospel Mission, I’ve spent time with our dairy producers at Hilmar Cheese, I’ve spent time at the new surface water treatment plant that Turlock and Ceres are talking about…you have to know every single issue that the community is facing and have a real sense of how you can create some change and some progress, but we are a diverse community that has an awful lot of challenges, and so that is sometimes tough…the job of a member of Congress is to be the best synthesizer of information possible.
Q: How is being a Congressman different or similar to your previous position in the business world?
A: It’s…pretty different. I would say, the similarities are the problems I’m trying to solve. In business, I was really concerned with how do we create more jobs and economic opportunity, and how do we create businesses, and now I’m concerned with the same exact problem: how do we grow our businesses and make sure we create a conducive landscape in the Central Valley where businesses can thrive and move forward in an area where we have a lot of economic challenges. The difference is that moving at a legislative pace instead of a business pace is very frustrating for someone like me. The fact that we’ve spent six weeks averting a completely unnecessary shutdown is very frustrating. I feel like all I’m doing is fighting fires, and I need a much bigger fire extinguisher because there are a lot of fires to fight in Washington. We shouldn’t be starting fires, we should be actually moving forward on some of the key issues. For those of us who campaigned on a proactive agenda and a sense of finding common ground to get stuff done, it’s been very frustrating to not really have a chance to do that quite yet.
Q: With the increased number of Congressmembers who are either female, Millennial, first-time politicians or represent diverse cultures, do you feel that there’s an atmosphere of change at the Capitol, or does it feel like the same old Congress?
A: Well, I don’t know anything different, so it feels like that’s the way it is. It gives me a lot of hope because I think we have a Congress that is disproportionately people that are serving in public life for the first time and are serving in public life for the first time because they felt there were huge issues in their communities that could only be solved by them getting involved and jumping on into the arena. That is a really good thing, and that means that almost for the first time, in a new way we have people that are serving who are actually trying to get things accomplished, as opposed to just putting something on the resume. I think that’s a very good thing for our country.