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Congress is about to lose its science guy

Planets on his tie and math book on his nightstand? It must be Jerry McNerney

Rep. Jerry McNerney brought his math Ph.D. (and his planets tie) to work on Capitol Hill. Now he’s retiring after 16 years and planning his next AI chapter.
Rep. Jerry McNerney brought his math Ph.D. (and his planets tie) to work on Capitol Hill. Now he’s retiring after 16 years and planning his next AI chapter. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Jerry McNerney likes to think about what’s next. The mathematics Ph.D. and former engineer co-chairs the Artificial Intelligence Caucus and has spent a lot of his 16 years in Congress focused on cutting-edge science topics.

But the California Democrat says he wasn’t farsighted enough to get ahead in the House. The retiring member’s advice for the next generation of lawmakers in Washington? Figure out if you’re planning to stay here 40 years or just 20 and plan accordingly. “That’s one thing that would have been helpful to me,” he said.

Sporting a solar system tie, McNerney sat down with CQ Roll Call for an exit interview recently. While McNerney lamented the rise in partisanship over the years and the lack of progress on riparian policy in the drought-plagued West Coast, he took comfort that he was leaving on a high note.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Q: You’re retiring. Why now?

A: There’s no one thing. I mean, the redistricting [this cycle] didn’t help. My new district is going to be more competitive, so I’d have to raise more money.

I’ve been here for 16 years, and the partisanship is so grotesque and ugly. And of course, we may be in the minority. Just a bunch of things accumulated up.

It’s good to go out on a high note. Even the people running against me who were developing negative ads are now saying, “You know, Jerry was a pretty good guy.”

Q: You’re the co-chair of the Artificial Intelligence Caucus. What’s one thing your colleagues get wrong about AI?

A: They basically don’t understand what it means. Is this some big mind that’s going to take over the world? No. It’s going to enhance people’s productivity. But there is a chance that it could cause displacements in the workforce.

So the purpose of the caucus is to inform members of Congress and their staff. Is AI going to be beneficial to your district? Is it going to help agricultural production, is it going to help with health care? Yes. Is it going to help with climate? I mean, there are so many benefits, but there are also some risks.

Q: You said you’re leaving on a high note, but you must have unfinished business too. What do you wish you could have gotten done?

A: I’m sad that we probably won’t get a privacy bill done this year. The one that was proposed is not where we needed to be yet.

And I’m working on a resolution to ask the House to debate the “just war” principles before declaring war or authorizing military force. I have significant support, but I don’t have bipartisan support. So I’m reaching out, having forums at different universities to get people more involved in that issue. What I’d like to see is a framework to discuss requests from the White House to authorize military force so we can judge whether we’re making the right decision or not.

Also, water policy. My district has the [Sacramento–San Joaquin River] Delta, which is the very end of San Francisco Bay with fresh water coming in from the mountains. There’s so much demand on the Delta water and so little water coming in from the Sacramento River now that it’s oversubscribed.

We don’t have decent water policy in this country. That was my bailiwick, but it just seems like it’s out of reach now.

Q: What advice do you have for the next generation of lawmakers?

A: If you’re going to be here for 40 years, develop a plan for yourself. You can get on one of the very hard committees, like Ways and Means or Energy and Commerce, that take a long time to advance. But if you’re only going to be here for less than 20 years, you may aim for one of the smaller committees, because there’s more chance to move into leadership on those.

That’s one thing that would have been helpful to me. I’ve been here 16 years, and I’m not even a chairman of a subcommittee yet.

Also, listen to your campaign consultants, but don’t always do what they say.

Q: One of the joys of leaving a place is you get to finally tell people what you really think. So, what do you really think?

A: Well, we’re not headed in a very good direction right now. We need to get the money out of the campaign system, at least as much as we can. That’s just so devastating to me.

One thing I hear from talking to old-timers, like Don Young before he passed, is we should put more power in the hands of the committee chairs. They’re motivated to get legislation done, whereas leadership is motivated to retain the majority, on both sides.

If you get a committee chair who’s bullheaded, then you’re not going to get much done in that area for a while anyway. But I think the Republican side has a pretty good system of rotating people into the chairs. Maybe three terms is too short, but that idea is helpful.

And more social interaction between the two parties. You develop relationships on CODELs or in the gym, maybe, but we need more time in social situations. It’s harder to bash somebody when you know them personally, and when you know their family.

Quick hits

Last book you read? “What We Owe the Future” by William MacAskill and “Reality+” by David Chalmers, on the hypothesis that we’re living in a simulation. I’m also reading a math book, functional analysis. But that’s a slower slog.

Your least popular opinion? Science. I’m really big on science, and it’s not a big issue in my district.

One thing you’d change about Congress? Campaign money, absolutely. I proposed a constitutional amendment just about every Congress to do away with PACs and dark money.

Something you’re proud of? What I’ve done for veterans, and lately my work on climate management and my work as chairman of the Artificial Intelligence Caucus.

Your next move? I still want to contribute. It doesn’t look like lobbying. But I might go to Stanford and help them build some programs there on sustainability and the ethics of artificial intelligence.

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