As we begin the second session of the 111th Congress, it seems to me that this is an appropriate time to reflect upon the progress we made last year and to look ahead to the challenges facing us in 2010.
Weighing heavily on the minds of most Americans over the last year is the dismal state of our economy. The collapse of the financial industry and the ensuing recession has shaken our confidence, and it has affected all of us in direct as well as indirect ways. While a full economic recovery is likely some distance ahead, I believe that the swift actions taken by Congress and President Obama have acted to blunt the full force of this recession and that we are now beginning to see some positive signs in the economy. While job losses were worse than anticipated for the month of December, the unemployment rate held steady at the previous month's rate of 10 percent--most likely an indication that the hemorrhaging of jobs has subsided. Many economists are encouraged that companies continue to hire temporary help, which typically precedes increases in full-time employment as employers--and consumers--remain wary of the current economic situation.
The primary goal throughout the first session of the 111th Congress was to stimulate job creation and return our nation to a path of economic prosperity with the passage of legislation like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the "Cash for Clunkers" program, as well as legislation to stabilize the housing market by providing tax breaks, loan modifications, and other incentives for homeowners. These programs injected a great stabilizing force into the economy, while also investing in our future with more fuel-efficient vehicles, and the replacement of aging transportation, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure. In our state, stimulus funds have paid for much-needed repairs to roads, improvements in our national parks, rehabilitation of stormwater and sewer systems and acceleration of the nuclear waste cleanup at Hanford. Most importantly, though, it has meant preserving jobs and creating thousands of new jobs here and more than a million nationwide.
Beyond these measures, several other important legislative initiatives have been signed into law last year, including:
* The Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights;
* Increased FDA regulation of tobacco;
* A new children's health insurance program to care for 11 million children;
* A bill to fight discrimination and close the earnings gap between men and women in the workplace;
* The most significant land conservation measure in more than 15 years;
* Extension of unemployment benefits for those still unable to find work, combined with the extension of COBRA health insurance benefits to recently laid-off workers;
* Increased oversight of TARP Funds and Defense procurement programs; and,
* Measures that will result in an unprecedented level of transparency throughout the Federal government.
While the House took the lead on comprehensive healthcare reform with the passage of the Affordable Healthcare for America Act, the Senate recently passed its own healthcare reform bill, known as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Though the basic framework of both bills is the same, there are significant differences between the House and Senate bills; all of which will need to be resolved in the coming weeks before any reforms can be enacted into law. But despite any differences, measures included in both bills would bring about the largest reforms to healthcare in the United States in more than 40 years. Both bills contain provisions which would:
* Require everyone to obtain health insurance, and would set up insurance exchanges where small businesses and people who buy their own health insurance could choose from a number of different plans;
* Provide subsidies to help low-income people buy insurance and expand Medicaid to help the poorest;
* Stop insurance companies from discriminating against applicants with pre-existing conditions.
Working with my Washington State colleagues, I was also able to include language in the House bill to modify the Medicare reimbursement rates and end the geographic disparities which penalized states where cost effective, quality care prevails, and rewarded states with high cost treatments, irrespective of results. The lower rate of reimbursement in states like ours has long been a burden on doctors, who were then forced to turn away new Medicare patients. Negotiations are moving forward, and I expect we will have healthcare reform legislation enacted into law in the next couple months.
The House was able to pass a number of other major reforms in 2009, including the American Clean Energy and Security Act to move our country toward energy independence while creating new "green" jobs, and the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act which would provide the most comprehensive financial reforms since the Great Depression. However, both of these bills have been referred to the Senate where they are being subjected to a number of obstructionist tactics.
As Chairman of the House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee, I am proud that we were able to increase funding for agencies such as the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, which plays such a critical role in protecting our drinking water, and preventing the degradation of our air quality. As residents of the Northwest, we all appreciate the beauty of the natural landscape that surrounds us--from the Olympics to Mount Rainier. However, we have taken for granted the severity of the threats facing the Puget Sound. Beneath the beautiful surface lurks a troubling problem with increasing amounts pollutants streaming in from stormwater runoff, agricultural and industrial chemicals, and even traces of prescription medicine. I was proud that the Interior Appropriations bill this year included $50 million--compared to $20 million last year--for cleanup and remediation which will ensure that the Sound remains the centerpiece of Western Washington for generations to come.
Understandably, domestic concerns have largely dominated newspaper headlines and the national dialogue; however, as the Christmas Day bombing attempt so clearly illustrated, the threat of terrorism on American soil is ever-present. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda have strengthened their hold on parts of Afghanistan, and they have regrouped while attention and resources were focused on Iraq. As you know, the Obama Administration has announced its plans for the deployment of 30,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan. Over the Thanksgiving Holiday I had the opportunity to visit with many of our troops in Afghanistan as well as the commanders on the ground in order to gain a better assessment of the situation. Especially because we are continuing to ask for great sacrifices from the men and women of our armed forces, it is my hope that the Obama Administration's new strategy will achieve the overall goal of ensuring Afghan stability so that we will be able to transfer the ultimate responsibility for Afghan security to the Afghan government on the schedule the President outlined. I believe that Congress must remain vigilant in its oversight and must also understand the complex and interrelated nature of our actions in the region, including questions about the stability of Pakistan, that represent very real risks to our nation. The way forward remains perilous indeed.
So at the beginning of 2010, one year into a new Administration that inherited a broad range of economic and national security challenges from its predecessor, I believe it is fair to say that Congress and the President have taken many crucial steps necessary to address the urgent challenges we faced last year. I can assure you that Congress remains committed to doing everything we can to promote job growth and economic recovery so that the year ahead will be even better.
With best regards,
Member of Congress