Lawmakers will take on legislation sure to please most constituents and unlikely to alienate many at election time

BY BEN GOAD
WASHINGTON BUREAU
ben.goad@yahoo.com

Published: 08 January 2012 08:26 PM

WASHINGTON — Entering a contentious 2012 election season, Congress isn’t expected to tackle many of the nation’s most divisive issues.

Inland lawmakers hope to take advantage of the void left by shelved debates over immigration reform, health care, climate change and other battles by pressing forward with less controversial legislation focused on improving the region.

Among their priorities are bills seeking to investigate water contamination, reduce the impact of goods movement through Riverside and San Bernardino counties and protect a million acres of the High Desert.

None of the legislation is assured passage in an era of fierce partisanship and legislative gridlock. But absent the appetite to grapple with major public policy problems, “members of Congress are going to play what President Bush called ‘small ball,’” Claremont McKenna College politics professor Jack Pitney said, referring to region-specific bills meant to alleviate local concerns.

“Members of Congress have an instinct for self preservation, and that instinct kicks in big time during an election year,” Pitney said. “People may be dissatisfied with the institution, but if their local members of Congress can produce for the district, they will reward those members.”

PERCHLORATE PROBLEM

Rep. Joe Baca said he plans to press forward with a host of locally targeted bills involving foreclosure relief, improvements to tribal schools and employment assistance for jobless veterans.

“It may be difficult, but we must come together this year to work on creating jobs and providing vital federal funds to worthy local projects,” said Baca, D-Rialto. “Dealing with the perchlorate problem and bringing the Inland Empire proper funding for water issues are also important priorities.”

Inland lawmakers have tried for years to quantify and counter the local problem of perchlorate, a rocket fuel chemical found in the Rialto-Colton groundwater basin. The contamination, which has forced Rialto officials to shut down seven of its 13 wells for some period, is a consequence of industrial spills and dumping by various companies starting in the 1950s, according to authorities. The chemical has been found to affect thyroid function in children and fetuses.

Baca is pressing legislation to require the U.S. Geological Survey to study two plumes of contamination in the basin and find out how much of it has spread into surrounding groundwater supplies. The study is expected to cost $2.4 million. A House subcommittee approved the bill in November, paving the way for a full House vote.

DESERT PROTECTION

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif, is set to renew her efforts to pass a bill that would bar development on more than a million acres in the Mojave Desert and northwest of Palm Springs. That bill, first introduced in 2009, got a boost in November when the Obama administration announced its support, joining more than 100 businesses, recreation groups, local governments and environmental organizations backing the California Desert Protection Act.

“There is broad agreement that these pristine lands must be preserved for future generations,” Feinstein said, adding that she would press for a hearing on the bill after Congress begins its 2012 session later this month.

As chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, much of Rep. Mary Bono Mack’s attention will be on national issues in the panel’s jurisdiction. But the issues she plans to work on — online privacy concerns, prescription drug abuse and ways to bring overseas jobs to the United States — would affect her Inland constituents as well.

“One of the best ways to do that is to create a favorable business climate by eliminating costly, job-killing regulations which make no sense in today’s world,” she said.

Bono Mack said she hopes to build on recent successes in that area, including one firm’s decision to relocate its designer clothing manufacturing plant from China to her Riverside County district, a move that her spokesman, Ken Johnson, said would bring the area an estimated 400 jobs in the next few years.

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