Meeks' Message From Capitol Hill
As I sat in the ornate chambers of the House of Representative Tuesday night listening to President Barack Obama address a joint session of Congress, I thought about the relevance of Martin Luther King's notion of "the fierce urgency of now." I was also reminded of how much has happened in the first two months of 2009.
President Obama had only been in office 36 days. The 111th Congress had only been in session for six weeks.
It was just over a month ago when two million Americans filled the National Mall to watch the inauguration of the first African American as president of the United States in an election that also increased the size of the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.
In his first couple of days in office President Obama signed executive orders outlawing torture and closing the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba. Within another 10 days two crucial pieces of legislation left over from the 110th Congress became law. One had been bottled up by Republican-engineered procedural delays that prevent a vote in the Senate. The other had been a prisoner of the previous president's veto pen.
The House and Senate passed the Lillie Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which passed the House and Senate by sizeable margins, and reversed a highly questionable Supreme Court decision that drastically limited a woman's right to bring a discrimination suit against an employer who paid her less than her male counterparts for doing the same work. Congress also passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program with extensive bipartisan support.
SCHIP provides coverage for 11 million children whose parents work but whose income exceeds the limit that would make their families eligible for Medicaid.
A couple of weeks later, the president also signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a $787 billion economic stimulus bill designed to jump start our badly ailing economy, save or create 3.5 million jobs, begin the long-neglected task of rebuilding and modernizing the nation's infrastructure, aid states and cities hard hit by the recession, extend health, unemployment, and educational benefits, while also laying the foundation for long-term economic growth and global competitiveness.
Two days after that, the president announced a $75 billion plan to stem the mortgage foreclosure crisis. The Act is the result of strenuous legislative effort. Not one of the 178 Republicans in the House voted for the bill. Only three of 41 Republican senators voted for it.
Although New Yorkers are facing the grim prospect of draconian service cuts and layoffs of public employees, not one Republican member of Congress from New York voted for a bill that will bring almost
25 billion in aid to New York State and $5 billion to New York City.
Congressional Republicans denounced the bill as excessive. They said it would saddle our grandchildren with enormous debt. This, after the outgoing president with the support of most of them passed on a trillion dollar deficit to the current president. House and Senate Republicans also complained that the stimulus package was really "a spending bill." By definition, a stimulus bill is a spending bill. As President Obama said, "that's the whole point."
What the bill actually does is create or save 3.5 million jobs by investing over $65 billion on infrastructure; $16 billion on technology and science research; $87 billion over the next two years in matching funds to help states avoid slashing their Medicaid programs; $19 billion to computerize health records; $53.6 billion to prevent layoffs and cutbacks in education; more than $30 billion on alternative energy, clean energy technology, retrofitting public housing and other government facilities, including a program to improve energy efficiency by weatherizing one million homes. It provides 33 weeks of unemployment benefits and increases unemployment benefits for over 20 million laid off workers.
The legislation also increases food stamp benefits for more than 31 million Americans.
Among other accomplishments, the ARRA includes a payroll tax cut for 95 percent of working families and provides grants and tax credits to businesses that conserve energy and create green jobs. In addition, the college tax credit is increased to $2,500 and Pell Grants are raised to $5,550.
Is it a perfect bill? No. I've yet to see a perfect bill in my 11 years in Congress. This bill is a product of compromise and negotiation: between the Congress and the Administration; between the House and Senate; between Democrats and the three Republicans who supported it; between Democrats and Democrats. The final version took account of thinking Democratic and Republican governors and mayors, and even some of the ideas of Congressional Republicans who opposed the bill. The Act is the first of many steps that will have to taken to tame the recession and restore opportunity.
But, sitting there in the House chamber listening to an energetic, confident, innovative, and involved new president, hearing the hall reverberate with enthusiasm for tackling the tasks ahead, and knowing that an overwhelming majority of the American people support the initiatives of the Obama Administration and the 111th Congress and are optimistic and hopeful about the future, I have no doubt that "We Shall Overcome."