2009-01-02 / Columnists

Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill

Commentary From The Desk Of Congressman Gregory Meeks

GREGORY MEEKS GREGORY MEEKS For many families in the Sixth Congressional District and throughout the nation Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanza 2008 are the hard times holidays. Just as surely as fall turns into winter, the financial crisis that erupted in mid-September has turned into a pronounced economic recession. Some economists anticipate that will be the deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s, others say it already is the worst in more than 75 years.

The economy has lost 2 million jobs in just this the last year of President Bush's watch. American auto companies have shed 150,000 jobs in the last three years, many of them in the past 12 months. Led by Citigroup, which is cutting back its employment rolls by 52,000 employees, banks and other financial services firms have lopped off tens of thousands of jobs as bankruptcies and takeovers diminish the size and strength of Wall Street.

No industry has been immune to the effects of the recession. More than 533,000 Americans lost their jobs in November. Nor has the public sector escaped. Most states face mounting budget deficits. Gov. David Paterson says New York confronts a $15 billion budget gap.

A couple of weeks ago, Presidentelect Obama said "things will get worse before they get better." It looks as if he was prophetic. Holiday shopping is drastically down. Homelessness and hunger are rising fast. Bankruptcies, near-bankruptcies, foreclosures and scandals are hitting with the same fury as the snow storms that bracketed the Midwest and Northeast last week.

The American auto industry, once the linchpin of our manufacturing prowess, is barely hanging on like a stray dog caught in a blizzard. Under extreme pressure, the Administration finally threw Ford, GM and Chrysler a bone, although it remains to be seen whether all or any of them will survive their exposure to the wind chill of a global economy that's in deep-freeze.

Earlier this week, Toyota announced that it would lose money this year due to slumping worldwide sales. This is the first time this has happened to Toyota, the world's largest car manufacturer, in 70 years. Toyota's case is an ice-cold rebuttal to those who argue that the problems of our domestic auto manufacturing industry are solely the result of faulty management by the Big Three and their contracts with United Auto Workers.

Yet, this is precisely the argument that a critical number of Republican senators made earlier this month when they sabotaged the auto rescue package passed by the House and supported by a bipartisan majority of senators. I voted for the auto industry rescue legislation. To do otherwise would risk the collapse of an industry that directly generates over 3 million jobs, and directly millions more.

It's noteworthy that many of these senators, as well as many of the Republican House members who likewise opposed the package, represent states or congressional districts with foreign-owned car manufacturing facilities.

Opponents have targeted the wages and benefits of autoworkers in particular. It's quite a sight to see members of the House and Senate demand auto workers at Ford, GM and Chrysler reduce their wages and benefits to the level of auto workers in non-union foreign-owned manufacturing plants that are generally located in largely non-union states. These colleagues and their allies in the media didn't make similar demands on the highly compensated senior executives and firms that were recipients of the $700 billion Wall Street rescue package Congress adopted last October.

The inauguration is less than a month away. Basically, the Administration has punted the auto industry crisis to the incoming Obama Administration and the 111th Congress. It has done the same thing with the recession as a whole, the credit crisis, the foreclosure crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, education, energy policy, global warming,

and a crumbling infrastructure. But, as bad as things are, the glass is half full rather than half empty. Although the Obama Administration and the new Congress will inherit a colossal mess, January 20, 2009, does mark the end of eight years of governance by conservative ideological rigidity (for example, the notion that regulation is inherently wrong

that enabled the financial crisis in the first place). The dogmatism, cronyism and incompetence of the Bush Administration will soon be replaced by the progressive pragmatism of the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress, which will have larger Democratic House and Senate majorities.

The new president and new Congress have our work cut out for us. Democrats are really going to have to work together and with Republicans to pass a economic recovery package big enough and creative enough to restart the econo

my and put people back to work. We also have to revisit and most likely reformulate the financial rescue package in ways that impose accountability and improved performance.

The new administration and the new Congress are going to have to figure out what works and do it.

This means resisting excessive partisanship and foregoing payback politics in favor of reaching out for bipartisan compromise and coalition, encouraging experimentation, cultivating competence and emphasizing innovation, big ideas and boldness in policy, programmatic initiatives and politics.

This is what the country needs.

This is what the public expects.

This is a way of extending the real spirit of the holidays not only into the New Year but also into a new era.

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