By Ken Shane
Incumbent U.S. Rep. David Cicilline recently won re-election by defeating former Rhode Island State Police Superintendent Brendan Doherty in the Nov. 6 general election. Cicilline, a former mayor of Providence, will serve his second term as the representative from the state's 1st Congressional District.
Cicilline said the campaign offered different views on how Rhode Island should move forward as a state. (Cicilline won with 58 percent of the vote. Jamestowners chose him over Doherty by just 75 votes.) He said it reinforced his belief that the single most important priority for Rhode Islanders is solving problems and getting things done in Washington, D.C., that will put people back to work.
"People really wanted to hear what the approaches would be in Washington to get our economy back on track," Cicilline said.
The congressman cited the fact that Rhode Island has the second or third highest unemployment rate in the nation -- depending on the week -- and that Rhode Islanders have been particularly hit hard by the economic downturn. Cicilline also mentioned the importance of protecting programs that are important to the state and the nation: Social Security, Medicare and Pell Grants.
"The election really reinforced my strong belief that we have to be responsible about dealing with the deficit and the debt," Cicilline said in a phone interview Tuesday. "But we have to do it in a way that honors the values of Rhode Islanders about a society in which people have an opportunity, and where we invest in the things that will grow our economy. Elections are about the future."
According to Cicilline, it was a hard-fought campaign, and he is honored to have the opportunity to serve the state and his district for two more years. He said that the re-election of President Barack Obama and gains by Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate indicate that the public has grown weary of the arguments of the Tea Party.
"It was a rejection of the idea that we could fix what's wrong with our economy and get it back on the right track without real compromise," Cicilline said. "The re-election of the president and the rejection of Senate candidates who followed the ideology of Mitt Romney has to be read fairly as a selection of the president's view of how we move forward as a country."
In regard to his legislative achievements in his freshman term, Cicilline pointed to the inclusion in the reauthorization of a program for small business innovation, a provision that directs government agencies that are giving loans to ensure that there is a strategy in place to enhance American manufacturing. On the local level, he mentioned that his office has helped approximately 1,500 constituents who have had problems with issues like Social Security checks, Medicare and student loans.
"Solving those problems for individual constituents, particularly in a really tough economy, is actually the most gratifying thing I do."
Constituent casework will continue to be a priority in Cicilline's second term. He has opened congressional offices in Newport and Woonsocket to make it easier for individuals to access his staff. Legislatively he plans to press the Make it in America agenda that he has been championing. That includes the Make it in America Block Grant, the bill that he introduced to end tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas. The theory behind the grant is to reform the exchange system so that China cannot manipulate its currency without consequences.
Cicilline said that he hopes the next session of Congress will see a serious attempt at immigration reform, an issue that is important to Rhode Island. He also plans to make a strong pitch to invest in the rebuilding of the infrastructure of the country as a way to put people back to work. In turn, he hopes it would create a platform for the rebuilding of the economy.
Other priorities for the congressman include making sure that higher education is affordable and ensuring access to workforce training.
"Workforce development and workforce training, as well as making it easier for people to send their kids to college, will be a really important priority for me in the second term," Cicilline said. "Not only preserving Pell Grants, but figuring out how to reduce the costs so that families are not putting themselves in debt."
His entire first term, Cicilline called for an end to the war in Afghanistan. He plans to continue to do so in the next session.
"I will be working very hard with a growing caucus in the House to press for an end to the war in Afghanistan," Cicilline said. "We have to continue to press the president and hopefully we'll have some success in ending the war."
Election reform is also on Cicilline's mind. He has co-sponsored legislation aimed at reforming the way elections are financed and run in this country. He hopes for passage of the Disclose Act, a citizenfi nanced model like the Fair Elections Now Act. He also hopes for a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit organization.
"We need a really serious effort to change the way that big corporations and big money influence our elections," he said. "Let's return it back to a democracy where people actually have a voice and where corporations are not allowed to spend money in secret ways. I think it's really destroying our democracy."
Cicilline said that Rhode Island's congressional delegation, which also includes Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, along with Rep. Jim Langevin, has been working together to try to bring as much federal money back to the state as possible. As an example he cited transportation money that the state of Florida turned down.
"We all wrote and asked the secretary of transportation to dedicate the money to Rhode Island, which he did," Cicilline said. "I think we've been very successful in bringing resources back to our state that have created jobs. If you look at the four of us and the size of our state, we have been really effective and we'll continue to work very hard to bring as much federal money as we can back to Rhode Island."
The major issue facing Congress as the lame duck session begins is the looming "fiscal cliff." While Cicilline acknowledges the importance of the issue, he said that the situation is not as dire as it is being portrayed.
"Although there is a date by which we have to get it done -- and we should get it done by the end of the year -- the media has created a notion that on Jan. 1 the world comes to an end if we don't come to an agreement. The truth is, we have got to solve this problem, but nothing magical happens on Jan. 1. What it will put into place is a set of spending cuts and tax increases that combined together over time would be very bad for the economy and put us back into a recession."
Cicilline says that he doesn't think there is any question that the House and Senate will find a solution, but isn't sure if it will get done by the end of 2012. "Or does it get done in two separate phases where there's some down payment on cuts and a down payment on generation of revenues before Dec. 31, with a plan to solve the large issues over the next several months?"
According to Cicilline, the mechanics of how the issue gets re- solved is not the real problem. The question is whether the Republicans in Congress will be willing to put revenues on the table in a serious way. Over $1 trillion in spending cuts have already been proposed. Cicilline says nothing has been done on revenues because of the unwillingness of the Republicans to put them on the table at all.
"I think we're seeing a change in attitude. I think Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is signaling a willingness to talk about revenues in a serious way. There are members of the Senate in the Republican Party, and even some House members, who are doing the same. I think we have a real opportunity here and I think there is no question that everyone recognizes that this not something that we can put off and kick down the road for two or four more years until the next election."
Added Cicilline, "I feel optimistic that we'll get to a place where we'll reach an agreement that works for our country."
Cicilline was adamant that Social Security should not be on the table during these discussions. He said that the program does not add to the deficit in any way. He believes there should be a serious discussion about ways to strengthen it without making it part of the present negotiations.
On the issue of Medicare, Cicilline said that there are enormous long-term savings built into the affordable healthcare legislation in terms of investments in wellness and prevention.
"There are ways that we can reduce health-care costs over time by bending the cost curve," he said. "That's what we should be looking at. The notion of reducing the costs of Medicare by either raising the premiums for seniors or making it more difficult for people to access the system by raising the age is the wrong approach. What that does is make healthcare less available to people and doesn't deal with the underlying issue of healthcare."
Cicilline added that the problem isn't with Medicare, and that the system itself is efficient. "The problem is healthcare costs. How do we reduce healthcare costs by investing in a serious way in prevention, wellness and new delivery systems? That I think is the way we have to approach the rising costs of healthcare in this country and not cutting benefits."