By Ralph Schwartz
Call it a "lame duck session," but U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen said that is no excuse for the 111th Congress to take the rest of the year off.
"There's still work to be done right now in this session of Congress," said the Everett Democrat, whose 2nd Congressional District covers much of northwest Washington, including Skagit County.
Even as some House members -- most of them Democrats -- prepare to leave office in a few weeks, they have been considering the extension of benefits for the unemployed, the fate of the previous president's tax cuts and the future of earmarks, to name a few of the issues in play.
Republicans, who take control of the House in January, blocked a measure before Thanksgiving that would have extended benefits for the long-term unemployed. Republicans wanted cuts in federal spending that would have compensated for the extended payments. The Labor Department estimates that nearly 2 million people will lose their benefits by Christmas.
Larsen supported the extension of unemployment benefits, which was not passed before the benefits expired Wednesday.
"Until the economy shows that it's recovering and people are feeling it, we still need to help some of these families that are unemployed. I don't think that's too much to ask right now for our country," he said Tuesday in a phone interview from Washington, D.C., before the benefits expired.
Larsen said the will in Congress to spend federal money to stimulate the economy has all but disappeared, but there remains a desire to help the middle class. He supports extending Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class but did not say he supported extending the cuts for individuals with incomes exceeding $250,000 a year.
As of Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats remained deadlocked over the tax cuts. Republicans generally favored an extension for every income group, saying they did not want to raise taxes on anyone during an economic downturn.
Larsen said the Republicans' position flew in the face of prudent fiscal policy. Extending tax cuts for the rich would "blow a $700 billion hole in the national debt," he said.
"I think we need to find the right balance between extending tax cuts for the middle class and reducing the deficit and controlling the debt," he said.
The Republicans routed the Democrats in congressional elections last month, gaining 63 seats to assume decisive control of the House. Larsen narrowly avoided losing his own seat, fending off a strong challenge by Republican John Koster of Arlington. Larsen defeated Koster by 2 percentage points.
Deficit reduction and job creation must be on Congress' agenda if its members are to act on the message sent by voters last month, Larsen said. And deficit reduction is not about raising taxes or cutting spending, he said. "Step 1 is to grow the economy," he said. "We need to focus on creating jobs in the Northwest, like landing the Air Force tanker (for Boeing)."
To create jobs, Larsen will focus -- not in this session, but the next -- on reauthorizing a major transportation funding bill that was due for an update more than a year ago. The bill would provide money to state and local governments for road and bridge construction and repair, and for mass transit.
The last such bill, passed in 2005, provided $244.1 billion toward surface transportation improvements.
"Some people who are just engaging on this issue say it's just another stimulus bill. This has been the work of Congress for the last 50 years," Larsen said. "There are projects all over Skagit County that'll be good long term and great in the short term because private-sector construction companies will be doing the work."
Larsen remains a supporter of earmarks, even in the face of opposition from Republicans and some Democrats. Republicans in the Senate unsuccessfully tried to enact a ban on earmarks earlier this week.
Earmarks provide federal money for specific projects in a legislator's home district or state. Larsen said the process of vetting and ultimately securing earmarks is transparent, especially in his office. He reports his earmark requests ahead of the deadline mandated for representatives.
"The most secretive process in Washington, D.C., other than the CIA's budget , is the way any president makes their budget," Larsen said.
Earmarks are vital to getting expensive projects done, he said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' General Investigation Study on flood control for the Skagit River relies on earmarks for its federal funding.
"If you ban earmarks, then it's very unlikely the G.I. Study will ever get done -- or flood control projects. If you ban earmarks, all the requests the city of Mount Vernon is making for their downtown improvement would have to end unless they're able to get them in the president's budget," Larsen said.