A sign on the ground level of the Citibank building on the 1900 block of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park instructs visitors to check in with security before entering the elevators.
A quick glance at the sign-in sheet showed that no other visitors had been to Rep. Xavier Becerra’s office in the past four hours.
The guard at the front desk called another security officer when it became clear that this visit to Becerra’s office had not been arranged in advance. They chatted briefly, inaudibly, before the second officer swiped a card through a reader inside the elevator door, pressed the button for the 8th floor and said, “I hope you fed the meter. You could be here awhile.”
The plan was simple enough. Stop by a representative’s office, find out what their constituent traffic is like these days, and try to get a feel for the Congressman’s reaction to the newly proposed Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction plan, which includes significant cuts to Social Security benefits.
This visit was not an act of espionage, but the longer the experience lasted, the more it felt like the act of visiting the Democratic representative of Los Angeles’s 31st Congressional District was something unheard of–wrong at worst and sneaky at best.
The congressman’s waiting room nearly is plain. Four chairs lined one wall, all facing the same direction. Walls the color of newly bleached teeth were adorned only by a framed picture of President Obama’s inauguration ceremony and a periodicals rack offering a selection of outdated People magazines. The sparse decoration is enhanced by the lack of any other visitors in the office.
The man at the front desk, dressed impeccably yet casually in a blue v-neck sweater and slacks, was polite and informative, offering that meetings can indeed be set up ahead of time while pointing to the telephone. He excused himself to see if the congressman’s press secretary was available.
Greg Buss’s first words were, “I can’t tell you anything on the record.” Becerra’s press secretary extended an invitation to his office, where he had just finished turning down CNN for an interview too.
Buss grew up in Portland, Ore. The picture of Mt. Hood hanging over a message-filled bulletin board was the first hint. His green and white-checkered shirt screamed Pacific Northwest. He went to undergrad at Occidental, and has been in Los Angeles ever since. He is, despite his brusque introduction, perfectly pleasant. But he refuses to say anything on the record. Nor, he says, is there anyone in the office who could say anything on the record. He does, however, print off some press releases quoting Becerra’s praise for H.R. 5297, the Small Business Jobs Acts the House passed in September.
According to his business card, Buss is also Becerra’s web manager. A big sheet of white paper hangs from his office wall with marker-scribbled notes: “Update website.” “Add W&M to top banner?” “2nd highest ranking Democrat in the house?”
Using basic decoding techniques, one can assume Buss’s notes refer to wishing to highlight Becerra’s position on the Committee on Ways and Means and his role as the vice chair of the Democratic Caucus, a post for which he was re-elected by Democratic House Members last week. The vote also retained Nancy Pelosi as Democrat’s chief. She’ll become the minority leader in January when Republicans become the majority in the House.
At the end of the meeting, Buss walked out of his office and past the door to the waiting room, opening another door that led directly into the hallway, completely outside of Becerra’s office. This was clearly the preferred route for visitors leaving the office.
Calls to Becerra’s office in Washington yielded similarly polite but essentially empty interactions. Someone picked up on the first ring, both at his main office and upon being transferred to his Washington press secretary, James Gleeson. At least their interview policy is consistent. No one was talking here either.
Gleeson wasn’t sure how constituent traffic is right now compared to other times. He guessed that more people may be calling Becerra’s office about the budget compared to other representatives because of his role with Ways and Means, but still couldn’t come up with a ballpark figure. He offered to look up some numbers later in the day, but those numbers are yet to come through.
Luis De Avila, a 31st District resident, started a discussion thread about budget plans on Becerra’s Facebook page on Nov. 16. In his post, he encourages civil, bipartisan discussion and hopes that Becerra with explain to his constituents what he thinks works and doesn’t work in the budget proposal. So far, no one has responded to his post.
In a separate correspondence, De Avila said he has also written letters to Becerra and Senators Boxer and Feinstein asking them to be open-minded about the proposal. He has not heard back from any of them, but plans to write again after Dec.1 when the deficit commission is due to officially present their recommendations to Congress.