Be My Guest

Be My Guest Column by Congressman Gregory W. Meeks

A New Year and New Possibilities

Politically, the closing out of 2010 and the dawning of 2011 is much more than a transition to a new year. It is the transition from Democratic control of both houses in the 111th Congress to divided government in the 112th Congress with a Republican majority controlling the House of Representatives and the Democrats remain in the majority of Senate.

A Republican majority in the House, which will include 43 Tea Party Republicans, will have profound political implications for New York City, which will lose considerable influence in Congress with the loss of the following committee and subcommittee chairs: Nydia Velazquez, Small Business; Ed Towns, Government Oversight and Reform; Carolyn Maloney, Joint Economic; Gary Ackerman, Middle East and South Asia; Jerrold Nadler, Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties; Jose Serrano, Financial Services and General Government; and me, International Monetary Policy and Trade.

Because any party or president could lose the majority in the next election, President Obama and Congressional Democrats used their control of the House and Senate in the outgoing Congress to concentrate on passing legislation, some of it historic. In fact, Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley says the 111th Congress was the most productive since the Congress that enacted Medicare, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, Head Start, the food stamps program, and immigration reform in the mid-1960s.

For example:

▪ The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that experts now credit with preventing the deepest recession in 80 years from becoming the first depression in 80 years, saving or creating 3 million jobs, making investments in education, alternative energy and infrastructure modernization, and providing cities and states with the resources to retain hundreds of thousands of police officers, firefighters, and teachers.

▪ National health care reform which will provide coverage to 32 million more Americans; prohibit insurance companies from dropping people who get sick or have preexisting medical conditions; allow children to remain on their parents policy until age 26; and lower Medicare prescription costs.

▪ Overhaul of Wall Street regulation, including place prohibitions on the kind of reckless and irresponsible behavior that caused the recession and nearly toppled the global financial system.

▪ The Lillie Ledbetter Pay Equity Act which expands women’s opportunity to file lawsuits against pay discrimination.

▪ Modified the federal student loan program to make college tuition more affordable.

▪ Confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan as Supreme Court justices.

▪ Several extensions of unemployment benefits.

For me, there is also a personal dimension to the loss of the House majority. Sixty-three Democratic members were defeated last November. These are friends with wonderful families, impressive records of accomplishment, and noble aspirations.

They lost their jobs for no other reason than putting America first by trying to help their constituents and the country weather the recession while their Republican opponents just said no to anything and everything President Obama and Congressional Democrats proposed.
Immediately after the midterms, many analysts speculated that the results had put the Administration permanently on the defensive and rendered Congressional Democrats irrelevant.

I did not and do not accept this view. I draw strength from the possibility of building on what was accomplished in the last Congress, particularly the lame duck session that brought it to a close.

President Obama’s ingenious compromise with Senate Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts for another two years in exchange for a 13 month extension of unemployment benefits, a one year 2 percent reduction in payroll taxes, an adjustment in the Alternative Minimum Tax, preservation of the Child Tax Credit, an enhancement of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and continuation of the America Opportunity Tax Credit, will bring relief to millions of Americans and increase the disposable income of tens of millions more.

I strongly supported the President’s compromise because it will help thousands of my constituents and further stimulate the economy. Besides, it is now crystal clear that the opened the way to enacting the most far-reaching child nutrition and food safety legislation in history, repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passage of a bill providing medical coverage and compensation for Ground Zero first responders, and Senate ratification of a new strategic arms reduction treaty with Russia — all on a bipartisan basis.
Divided government makes it highly unlikely that the 112th Congress will feature equivalent legislative accomplishments.

Much depends on whether or not House Republican leaders accept Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s invitation “to find common ground on behalf of all Americans.” The decision of House Republicans to schedule a vote next week to repeal the historic health care reform goes in the opposite direction.

Republicans have the votes to repeal it in the House but not the Senate and even if they did the president would veto it.

Moreover, such theatric appeals to the Tea Party wing of the GOP carry the danger of more gridlock, more obstruction of the president’s agenda, more partisan tension within Congress and between Congress and the White House, and more polarization when the country needs and wants is bipartisan cooperation and compromise in the national interest.