On November 1, I joined the rest of the Massachusetts Congressional delegation in sending a letter to President Obama to support Governor Patrick's request for an emergency declaration following the severe storms at the end of October. These storms, combined with the destruction of Hurricane Irene and the tornadoes in June, pushed our state and local response capabilities to the limit and made federal assistance crucial to restoring power and removing debris. I am happy to report that the President issued an emergency declaration in response to our letter on November 1.
On November 14, the FY 2012 Agriculture Appropriations bill was introduced in the House of Representatives. I was disappointed to learn that the language of this bill would allow U.S. horse slaughterhouses to potentially resume operations after a five year ban. While the FY 2012 Agriculture bill did not include funding for horse meat inspections, it does not explicitly prevent the U.S. Department of Agriculture from carrying out inspections as in past years. The inspections could cost the USDA $3 million to $5 million annually, which would need to come from the existing budget. I will continue to work to prevent the resumption of horse slaughter and support a federal ban on this inhumane practice. I am a cosponsor of H.R. 2966, the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act of 2011.
Earlier this year, the Department of Agriculture proposed new standards for school lunches designed, among other things, to reduce sodium and increase whole grains and vegetables in school meals. However, a section of the Agriculture portion of this appropriations bill blocks the USDA's proposal, and goes so far as to allow the two tablespoons of tomato paste on the average slice of pizza to be considered a vegetable. This language is nothing more than a defense of poor nutrition for our children -- poor nutrition that leads to obesity and diabetes, as well as related conditions like cardiovascular disease, stroke, and cancer. Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 30 years. In the face of these alarming numbers, we should be working to reverse this trend, not encourage it.
On November 17, the House of Representatives passed the Transportation and Housing Appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2012. It was not a perfect bill, but it included a number of bright spots:
- Emergency Relief: $1.66 billion to repair a backlog of road, highway and bridge projects in 37 states that were damaged by natural disasters.
- AMTRAK: $1.418 billion and the deletion of onerous language that eliminated service on 26 short-distance routes, including the Vermonter service.
- National Infrastructure Investment (TIGER Grants): $500 million for national and regional transportation projects.
- Highway Funding: $39.8 billion, $12.1billion more than the House draft bill to maintain our national highway system.
- Transit Formula Funding: $8.36 billion, $2.5 billion more than the House draft bill to operate and expand our regional transit systems.
- Housing Counseling Assistance: $45 million to restore funds to local non-profits for reverse mortgage, rental, home pre-purchase and foreclosure prevention counseling.
On November 18, the House of Representatives voted on a Balanced Budget Amendment to the constitution. As part of the debt ceiling debate this past summer, it was agreed that both the House and Senate would take a vote on such an amendment. On November 18, the House rejected the bill which needed a 2/3 majority to pass. I voted against the amendment because it would have tied the hands of Congress in the case of national emergencies and limit the ability of the government to make long term investments in large scale projects. I believe that we must do everything we can to enhance economic growth while working to cut back on federal spending levels; however, we cannot force a static limit and reasonably expect to avoid unintended consequences. I will continue to work with members of congress to solve our growing deficit issues and grow the nation's economy.
On November 21, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction--created under the deal to raise the debt ceiling on August 1, 2011--failed to come up with a compromise to reduce our national debt. Charged with the responsibility to create a deficit reduction plan of at least $1.2 trillion by November 23, the committee was unable to reach consensus on a plan and dissolved without achieving its goal. I share the frustrations of all Americans that Congress is unable to find a compromise between the two parties. All six Republicans on the committee made a pledge to oppose any new taxes, a position that effectively left the committee without a chance to find a middle ground. As a result of this failure, a built-in secondary deficit reduction plan known as sequestration will take effect in 2013. These cuts include $600 billion in both defense and domestic non-security spending over the next 10 years. Though these cuts are significant, they are still only a part of the long term need to reduce our deficit.
On November 21, I joined 60 colleagues in a letter to President Obama urging him to adjust his administration's policy in Sudan. While US engagement has contributed to significant successes -- most notably South Sudan's peaceful transition to independence earlier this year -- the Sudanese government continues to attack civilians in the regions of Darfur, Southern Khordofan, and Blue Nile. Sudan watchers believe that US policy, which addresses the conflicts in each of these areas separately, has enabled the government to pit regions against each other and evade responsibility for any of them. The letter urges the President to implement a new and more comprehensive strategy, marshalling the international community to support civil society and democratic reform, sanction human rights abusers, and push for a peace process that includes parties across Sudan.
On November 25 I became a cosponsor of H.R. 2830, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which extends the TVPA for the next two years and gives the State Department the capacity to respond to emergencies, like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which put children at greater risk of trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) was landmark legislation that made combating human trafficking a top priority of the State Department. The TVPA created the State Department Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, established global minimum standards for fighting trafficking and slavery, and authorized the annual Trafficking in Persons report.