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Public Statements

Unfinished Business in the 112th Congress

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. TONKO. This evening we'll spend some time here in Special Order on the House floor to address a great bit of unfinished business that rests before the House. And we have just returned from what is a 5-week recess where Members of this House were back in their districts and addressing the events of this session. It has been labeled by many as a do-nothing Congress. This evening we're going to talk about that do-nothing agenda.

We have attempted in every which way to encourage the Congress, the House, to address legislation that speaks to job creation and economic recovery, continuing to build upon the achievements of the 111th Congress, and we're now serving in the 112th.

But for me, it's my second term in the House. The very first term for me, the 111th Congress, was deemed by several polls out there to be one of the most productive in decades where there were many things taken up by this House that responded to the needs of America, middle class Americans, Americans of all stripes, who required initiatives from this House.

We were in the midst of a very dark period, a recession that gripped this economy that put 8.2 million people at risk by their losing a job through no fault of their own. We were losing as many as 800,000 jobs a month.

So the devastation of that impact on the American economy, bringing America's economy to its knees, needed a response from government.

The President acknowledged an agenda that would move us not only into a response against the recession but putting us at the cutting edge of a modern economy. Investing in research, investing in science and technology, investing in an ideas economy, investing in an innovation economy--that's the sort of priming of the pump, if you will. That's essential for us to respond in substantive terms for us to utilize government as a tool that is productive and enabling and empowering the middle class, empowering our small business community, empowering our entrepreneurs.

That was the hope-for. And it happened in the 111th Congress.

But something drastically happened with the change in leadership in the 112th Congress. We now have been ranked in single-digit percentage approval. Below 10 percent is the approval rating for this Congress, some of the lowest points achieved, or earned, by this Congress in its history as a House.

That is a very telling statement. How do we go from the most productive in decades to most unfavorable in the history of the House?

We have a reactionary response from those who want to destroy the essence of government. They do not weave any sort of government program activity into the fabric of response to a very difficult period in our economic history. It is one that is unpopular and unproductive. It is one that is being rejected by people out there.

When I go back to my district, I hear it from Republicans, Democrats, Independents alike: Why can't something get done? There's a paralysis here. And it's because there's a rejection. There is a sense of partisanship rather than partnership. There is an outright attempt to deny anything coming to the House as a request to get productive and progressive policy done.

So there are things that languish. There is this crush of big tasks that rest before the House, work to produce a jobs bill, work to produce a response to the ag crisis, the reauthorization of our ag bill, work to invest in the middle class.

It's been this House, when controlled by the Democrats, that spoke to the opportunities, the ladders of success, if you will. The Democratic conference in this House was all about, has always been about, in my tenure here, about producing ladders of success. You know, we believe in that American principle that you work hard, act with responsibility, play by the rules, and expect to taste success.

Well, we haven't seen that sort of cooperative spirit from the new Republican majority in the House.

You know, we believe, as Democrats, that you produce those ladders of opportunity. You allow people to climb toward their American Dream. We enable people to utilize their gifts, their talents, their passions, their skills to empower themselves, their families, the small businesses. And so we stand for this wonderful three-legged stool that speaks to the empowerment of small business, forever the pulse of American enterprise, that looks to create jobs that are then tethered very strongly with small business citizenship into the local community grain.

Then we talk about investing in entrepreneurs, those dreamers, the movers, the shakers, the builders of society that have forever been the American spirit, the pioneer spirit.

I represent a district in upstate New York that is the donor area to the Erie Canal. And that canal produced not only a port out of a little town called New York City but gave birth to a necklace of communities that became the epicenters of invention and innovation.

The empowerment of the entrepreneur--another strong underlying principle of the agenda of Democrats in the House.

Finally, a thriving middle class--making certain that we utilize the policies that can be created in this House that will empower with tax fairness, empower with investment in the worker, in education, higher education, apprenticeship programs to empower the middle class and small businesses.

We have measures that we have asked to be brought to

the floor. There is a denial of any sort of single jobs bill before the House. We have requested over and over again to invest in that agenda the empowerment of America through small business, entrepreneurs, a thriving middle class. It's been rejected.

Tonight I'm joined by a colleague from the State of Connecticut, JOSEPH COURTNEY. JOE COURTNEY is a strong believer in this government process. He's a strong believer that when we can prime the pump and when we can utilize government to make a difference, when we can create programs that speak to the honest-to-goodness agenda for all strata of America, but utilizing that middle class strata--small business, farming as a small business--making certain we utilize every strength, every sector of our economy and not just relying on a service sector, especially the financial services that we did that brought us into a crisis situation--we can incorporate all of the sectors of the economy.

One of those prime sectors? Agriculture.

Representative Courtney, it is great to have you joining us this evening in this colloquy.

The agriculture industry from coast to coast is a heavy-duty important industry. You sit on the Ag Committee. As a representative from Connecticut,
you know the importance of agriculture to your State. I know the importance of agriculture in upstate New York, throughout New York.

Reauthorization of an ag bill is fundamental, is it not, to go forward and create opportunities?


Mr. TONKO. Representative Courtney, you're a great friend. You're a great friend not only to me, but to this House, to the district you represent, and to the State of Connecticut. And you're such a good friend because of the academics that you put into the job. I have watched you in action, and I know that you are about building consensus.

But what we have here, you talk about, doesn't this become even more urgent an item with the drought situation that we've had across this country? Grain prices are going to rise. So to have some stability and security--predictability--into the ag outcomes for many sectors of agriculture, it becomes even more critical. And to go back, to revert to a 1949 formula, is sinful. It's immoral.

People talk about the lack of sensitivity, the lack of productivity, but we're talking about immoral outcomes here that don't enable people to do their work. I mean, this is a small business--in many places large business--but agriculture runs that gamut. For many, it's small business, it's family business, it's a way of life, and we're denying that very fabric of this country.

I know groups have come together in atypical fashion--outside groups that are putting pressure here--they have come in partnership to say: Hey, look, get this done, as you're suggesting, get it done. You've done some of the basics. Why are you ignoring this number one industry for many States?


Mr. TONKO. You know, I listen to you, and your State was tremendously impacted by Irene and Lee last summer. My State was tremendously impacted. We reached for those very pots--that we've emptied with the Republican solution--that served our communities so very well with disaster funds. We can't tamper with some of those legitimate set-asides because they're there, they're required by acts of Mother Nature or by manmade situations where we need to have disaster dollars available.

But you can't help but quantify. I mean, you just imagine the extrapolating out of jobs, the impact of jobs if you don't get this done, the ripple effect into those ancillary businesses that feed into the needs of agriculture. It is a tremendous opportunity for us to grow stability in the economy. And to not do this, this do-nothing Republican Congress is devastating the economy. We could have made major strides, we could have gone forward with a lot of attempts to do good.

Now, what I sense here, from what you've talked about with these poison pills that have been adopted or placed into their solutions, or the ignoring of agreed-upon legislation in committee, this is a recurring theme. I mean, we saw the FAA, the Federal Aeronautics Administration, impacted again by delays, games that were being played because they need the full loaf or they want it their way. There is no sense of consensus that is driving these outcomes. And so we delayed for months the FAA outcome, which challenged, put at risk hundreds of projects, tens of thousands of construction jobs that were going to speak to safety at our airports.

We saw it with student loans. You were so actively involved with that. You were outspoken in your criticism of perhaps doubling our students' interest on their loans. And they, again, inserted poison pills. We waited until the midnight hour to get something done--with a lot of unpredictability again.

We saw it with the payroll tax relief that we were trying to do for middle-income America and small businesses. Couldn't get it done. Waited till the last minute. Poison pills that delayed progress.

This is a recurring theme, is it not?


Mr. TONKO. Representative Courtney, you talk about the reducing of VAWA, the Violence Against Women Act. If the spirit and letter of that law has been to protect women, why would you weaken certain protections?

There's this order of meanness and selectiveness and insensitivity that has abounded in this House, where they reduce efforts that have been championed over the decades, hard-fought efforts, bipartisan efforts, bicameral efforts, the executive branch working with the legislative branch, making certain that the heart and soul of this reform through the ages has been about making America stronger.

You know, it's we, the people, working toward a more perfect Union, a more perfect Union. We've made such wonderful progress. We have acknowledged the needs of women, where they were ignored in legislative or statutory concepts. We go forward. And now it's like, as you suggest, rolling the clock back, being insensitive to so many needs out there and reducing the fabric of our government. It's like trying to speak to an archaic sort of quality that's driven by extreme thinking. It's the tail wagging the dog in the conference where this extreme thinking has taken over the majority and this do-nothing Republican Congress is not responding, not stepping up to the plate at a time that it's very, very critical.

We saw this economy challenged more greatly than perhaps the Depression of the past that really was a prime test, but in many of the lives of today's working Americans, this is the first-time greatest experience, a challenge before us. And when we should step up and be the champions, the fairness and justice and resolve to move forward with progressive policy, we're getting almost the reverse. It's the antithesis of what's required here.


Mr. TONKO. And I agree with you. I think that the brinkmanship that was utilized in the debate and the development of a response to the debt ceiling crisis was an attachment of bells and whistles and all sorts of extraneous materials that were being applied in an inappropriate way. We needed to move forward and address an order of crisis. America knows that, they understand they play by the rules and you pay your bills.

But it was this attempt to weaken a process, and it was an attempt to stall and delay and make a political statement at the expense of having our then credit rating downgraded by S&P. So the outcome here was a devastating one.

And, you know, it is really unfortunate that we're not heeding the need out there. I believe the American public has been stating emphatically they want solutions. They want us to come up with a response to an economic crisis. They want to know how we're going to move forward with this idea economy, innovation economy, clean energy economy. They want to see us move toward energy independence. They want to see us addressing transformation of the economy. They want advanced manufacturing that requires training of workers that begins with education investments, all of these things. They want us to develop solutions.

They don't want paralysis. They don't want this divide, this great divide. They don't want the partisanship.

They want partnership. They want solutions.

We saw what happened when you can advance solutions in this House. You and I enjoyed the 111th Congress and the productivity of that Congress. And to have moved to this sort of paralysis is unacceptable.

And the do-nothing Republican Congress is being watched very carefully here, and I believe that this coming election will be a very telling statement about rejecting the sort of delay, the rejecting of the games being played, a rejecting of the disinvestment, a rejecting of the defunding and the dismissiveness of a role that government could and should play in very important areas.

You ask these other economies out there with which our American business is competing. We're in an international race on innovation. You know, much like the race, global race on space in the sixties, when this country came together in resolve after a Sputnik moment, when they dusted off their backside and said, Never again, and we're going to move forward and we're going to be the Nation to stake that flag on the Moon.

We won because we resolved to do it. We did it with great passion. We did it with intellect. We did it coming together as a people of all sorts of political stripes, and we worked together as one Nation.

You're right, on this given day of 9/11, when we reflect upon those tragedies and when our virtues as a Nation--our liberties, our freedoms, our opportunities--were challenged and threatened and numbed us for a moment, we came back with great resolve. Let's show the passion here that we did in the sixties to win that global race in space. Let's invest. Let's go forward. Let's make certain we don't tie the hands of America behind her back. Let's move forward and invest in an economy, in a race that is important to our efforts to maintain our leadership on the international scale.


Mr. TONKO. A point oftentimes lost. Even millionaires and billionaires would get their tax breaks on a first order of income, $250,000.

Do you know what stands in the way? If we have to be totally frank here, they want to make certain that millionaires and billionaires continue to get their bonanza of a tax break. Well, do you know what? We know what got us into the economic crisis. We had a tax cut for millionaires and billionaires primarily that was never paid for. We fought two wars off line, off budget. So one of the first orders of business that the President wanted to address was putting together an honest budget. You didn't have the mechanism, the payment mechanism, for the millionaire-billionaire tax cut, and you have to bring that cost of the war into the budget.

We need to move forward with a sound and reasonable approach to economic relief. The middle class has taken it on the chin, and it's their turn. They need to be relieved, and we need to invest in those orders of comeback that will empower our middle class. What I think is, with the efforts that have been made here in the House, the requests made in the House are very legit: Do what you can afford. Keep the economy going. To me, it's about aggregate demand for goods and services. So, if you relieve the middle class, if you strengthen their purchasing power, if we had that thriving middle class, someone needs to buy your product; someone needs to make your product. If you empower that middle class, it's a formula for success.

As you point out, Representative Courtney, it is 98 percent of the general public that will enjoy that empowerment and 97 percent of the small business community. There is a way to go forward with a reasonable approach that really speaks to that strata that needs the most assistance today.


Mr. TONKO. Representative Courtney, you talk about that event. When he made his presentation, he did that long-term review and a rather shorter focus over the last couple of years--the first term of President Obama's. Yet, when he talked about the track record over the last decade, he talked about 28 years of Republican leadership versus 24 years of Democratic leadership. He talked about the outcome in jobs, and said, under the Republican watch, 22 million jobs, I believe, were created. Under the Democratic watch, there were 42. So, he said, let's look at the record. Let's check the scorecard. Then he did the short-term outcome of President Obama's administration. He was talking about the numbers of jobs created and gave a zero to what the Republicans were advancing in the House.

It's pretty obvious that there is this outcome of success. People constantly refer to the Clinton years now. What happened there? Well, we undid the surplus that was created. We spent down on a tax cut that wasn't paid for. We fought two wars that weren't on line with the budget. It's obvious we know what happened. Why would we give the keys back to someone who drove us into the ditch?

So this whole effort in this administration with 30 now consecutive months of private sector job growth and the President's asking for Congress to move forward with an agenda that has had obvious positive results and its being denied and held up, played with, entered in with poison pills is not what the American public wants. They want those solutions, and they are denying those solutions. I think the do-nothing Republican Congress has caused great pain and has denied progress for the comeback scenario that we so desperately require and that the middle class and all of America so rightfully deserve.


Mr. TONKO. Thank you, Representative Courtney. I thank you for your outstanding leadership. You've been there on the student loan issue. You've been there on the ag reauthorization measure. You've been there on the American Jobs Act.

We know that there has been a formula for success driven by the President for the American Jobs Act. He has asked for Congress to move forward. The Senate has, in a bipartisan way, moved forward with efforts to address a middle class tax cut. The President has asked us to complement that with the American Jobs Act that enables us to move forward with investments in educators, allowing for teachers and class size to be addressed, making certain that our young people, our workforce of the future are able to enjoy that self-discovery, that sense of identity that they require in the classroom. What are their gifts, their passions, their skills, their talents? How can they best contribute their fabric to the American scene?

That is part of the American Dream. That is part of the investment that provides those underpinnings of support, that builds an economy with capital investment, physical investment, human infrastructure investment, all of which are required in order to have the holistic response. With the American Jobs Act formula, the President is saying, Look, we've grown 30 months of consecutive private sector job growth. We've enabled the economy to come back powerfully. We're investing in that order of business.

He's also asked that that public sector element which has been reduced, that has offset some of the progress, has reduced some of the progress because of pain at those State capitols putting together their budgets, he said, Look, let's from a big picture point of view. Invest in educators, in public safety, in police officers, in firefighters, in emergency personnel.

On a day like today where we humbly reflect upon the pain this Nation endured, the loss of lives, nearly 3,000 people impacted by the acts at the Pentagon, in a lonely field in Pennsylvania, and, yes, in metropolitan New York, we are reminded most humbly, most sensitively, most lovingly of that
dreadful moment. And we saw how important our public safety elements are, our first responders, critical to that situation. It showcased a very noble measure in a very painful and dark moment in our history what those role models are, who they are. That's their everyday work. It was showcased in a very magnified way. But every day we reach to their skills, their talents, their strengths.

The President is saying invest in that public safety element, invest in our firefighters, in our police officers, in our emergency responders. He's asking for that in the American Jobs Act. We've done pieces of it, but we need to do the entire package to have the strength that this economy requires for its comeback.

He talks about infrastructure improvements through an infrastructure bank that is part and parcel to the outcome, making certain that our infrastructure is strong and able to move our situation of a comeback. Commerce requires the shipping of freight. It needs the infrastructure. Our communities require that investment in infrastructure; otherwise, they go it the way of a property tax or a less progressive tax structure.

We know what needs to be done, and the denial here by the do-nothing Republican Congress is not acceptable. It's painful. It's immoral. It's insensitive. It's un-American. To put partisanship ahead of partnership is unacceptable.

We know that the American spirit requires better than that, so we need to respond to America's working families. We need to respond to the hope that ought to be delivered to the doorsteps of families across this great Nation. Our history is replete with investment, investment to take us to new ages, new elements of success, new impacts on the world scene.

Earlier, I had spoken of the mill towns that became epicenters of invention and innovation. It was their product delivery coming out of the mill towns, out of those 24-hour-a-day operations that impacted the quality of life, not just in these United States, but in nations around the world. People were lifted by discovery and product development in this Nation. And as we move forward, we need to advance our manufacturing agenda, we need to invest in the research, and we need to invest in the innovation.

I'm reminded of some of the incubator outcomes at campuses within the 21st Congressional District in upstate New York in the capital region of Mohawk Valley that I represent, incubators at public and private sector institutions, clean room science activity going on in lab formats at community colleges, working with our nanotechnology industry, our semiconductor industry, advanced battery manufacturing. All of this requires a plan, a holistic plan that allows for the unleashing of talent and opportunity from the American public. Someone before our times invested in our future.

Throughout our noble history, throughout our growth as a Nation, there were those who believed in America and invested in her people. We can ill afford to go back. We can only go forward, as was made mention by the

President and many of his administration that were speaking at the convention, many legislators who appeared at the convention and spoke about the agenda to constantly move forward, embracing the American Dream in the process. That American Dream is what inspired so many to journey to this Nation.

We are, in major fashion, a compilation of journeys. Other than our Native American sisters and brothers, it's the immigrant population that traveled to these shores embracing that American Dream, believing in a brighter tomorrow, understanding that if they put their mind and heart and soul to work, that better opportunities would be there, that they could climb the ladders of success, that they would not pull up those ladders when they reached the mountaintop, but extend additional ladders to everyone to climb that ladder of success until they reached that American Dream.

That has been the saga of this great Nation. That has been the profoundness of this Nation, the greatness of this Nation. Why would we change course now? We saw what ill effects came of some bad policy or lack of sound stewardship of our resources. Let's learn from that history, but let's also learn from the history of greatness where America struggled through tough times, faced immense challenges, but powerfully spoke in a way that engaged that American spirit and put it into policy format, resource advocacy, and budgets that spoke to a soundness of a future for America.

Our best days lie ahead if we pursue that agenda that shows its belief and its promise in America's children and working families. The undeniable progress that we can make speaks boldly to us. We've seen an administration reach out to this Congress asking for a partnership, a bipartisan response, one that will allow all of us to share in the great success that can follow. We've seen what happens when we go forward with some of the measures of progressivity.

We have a grid system that was challenged as early as 2003, where we know there is a need for investing in the capacity of that system that was designed for regional utility matters, and now we're wheeling electrons from region to region within States to States to States and from nations to nations. We know that we have to step up to the plate and invest in that utility infrastructure. We know that there are deficiencies in our routine, traditional infrastructure that require our investment.

We know that there's a need for energy transformation so that we can grow with the American intellect, that intellectual capacity that enables us to provide for the innovation, the American independence, the American security that can be dealt with through renewables, and energy efficiency as our fuel of choice and outstanding discoveries that can be made in a way that are most powerful, and research that equals jobs.

We see it happening all around us, and it's not like we have the luxury to decide not to do it. We're in the midst of an international competition.

And unlike the sixties, where it was U.S. versus U.S.S.R., we are now with many more competitors on the international scene. They are partnering with their governments. They are partnering in a way that provides research monies, incubator space, higher-ed communities that are growing in leaps and bounds while we languish with a do-nothing Republican Congress that wants to promote delay, insert poison pills, or just deny progress in a partisanship way that is not speaking to the American spirit that was imagined and planted by our Founding Parents.

You know, tonight, for this past hour, we as Democrats have enjoyed sharing our thoughts about what a productive Congress could be in terms of shaping our future, what a productive Congress could mean to fairness and justice and equitable opportunity for generations to come.

Our children are watching, they're measuring our actions much more than by our words, more so by the achievements that we can assess. They're watching carefully, and we need to move forward in a way that finds us working together to build consensus. When we insert the ``we'' in us, it is much more powerful than the ``me'' in us.

This House has had great moments when they've rolled up their sleeves as Members and have come to the table and said, America beckons. Her people need that sort of response. True leadership will move forward in a way that allows us to enjoy the taste of success.

You know, tonight, as we've talked about the paralysis that has gripped this House, as we talked about the denial that has been part of the outcome that has been demeaning and destructive at times, I reach to the assessment by very nonpartisan congressional scholars, in this case Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein. They have been, over the years, very much bipartisan in their criticism and critiquing of the behavior in Congress.

I just want to quote from their report:

In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

Tonight I will close with that statement because I think it's a challenge. It's a challenge to us to forget about the unproductive nature of the last several months and move forward with a newfound order of resolve that will enable us to acknowledge that some of the greatest moments in American history came with some of her darkest hours where with that regard, that true American spirit we're able to rise to the occasion, reach to the best intellect and the best temperament of this Nation as she came together in an order of consensus and where our best days followed that sort of agreement.

We can build upon success. We can learn from history, the soundness of history that saw us respond and rise to the crushing situations that gripped this Nation and move forward with a sense of greatness, a sense of accomplishment, a sense of fairness and empowerment and, most importantly, a delivery of hope to the doorsteps of individuals and families across this great Nation. America's greatest moments are truly lying ahead if we can embark upon that challenge before us.

With that, Mr. Speaker, I yield back the balance of my time.

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