Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church

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The invitation to the White House arrived as a simple e-mail, not on engraved cardstock with fancy calligraphy. Selected National Association of Counties’ (NACo) leaders were invited to a meeting with senior Administration officials on Tuesday, May 3. As vice chairman of NACo’s Energy, Environment, and Land Use Steering Committee, I was on the list. The non-transferable invitation asked for full name, date of birth, social security number, country of birth, and current city and state of residence. Apparently, my information checked out all right, as the next email instructed me to “report to the Southwest Appointment Gate with a government-issued photo ID” at 12:30 p.m..

The invitation to the White House arrived as a simple e-mail, not on engraved cardstock with fancy calligraphy. Selected National Association of Counties’ (NACo) leaders were invited to a meeting with senior Administration officials on Tuesday, May 3. As vice chairman of NACo’s Energy, Environment, and Land Use Steering Committee, I was on the list. The non-transferable invitation asked for full name, date of birth, social security number, country of birth, and current city and state of residence. Apparently, my information checked out all right, as the next email instructed me to “report to the Southwest Appointment Gate with a government-issued photo ID” at 12:30 p.m..

About 90 county supervisors and commissioners from around the country queued up at the Southwest Appointment Gate, photo IDs in hand. We were asked for the last four digits of our social security number, directed through a turnstile, and up the stairs into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB) adjacent to the West Wing, where another checkpoint repeated the same drill. This time each visitor was issued a badge, which allowed us to go through another turnstile. The hallways were busy with workers headed for the EEOB eatery, but no other security officers were apparent. Soon, we were escorted into a small auditorium which seated about 150 people. Interestingly, the room was not full. I managed to get a seat in the second row, which turned out to be a terrific vantage point.

The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Breaking the Cycle of Jail and Poverty, Infrastructure and Sustainable Communities, and Health Reform Implementation and Medicaid – all issues of significance to local governments. The printed program indicated that Vice President Biden was scheduled to speak later in the afternoon, and I noticed that the podium carried the “Seal of the Vice President of the United States.” Housing and Urban Development Deputy Secretary Ron Sims opened the meeting by noting that we live in the most competitive century ever, with a very diverse global population. His enthusiasm and positive outlook set the tone for the discussions that followed about the very real challenges offenders face when they try to return to society, recidivism, and conflicting federal, state, and local regulations about services available.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano highlighted her department’s “See Something, Say Something” campaign, which urges citizens to report suspicious activities to the appropriate authorities. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’ comments to the group about health care reform were cut a bit short by the arrival of Vice President Joe Biden, who strode to the podium, but didn’t stay there long. Mr. Biden’s style could be described as “up close and personal.” In a wide-ranging 20-minute conversation “Oprah-style,” he noted that the President assigned him to work with Congressional leaders to resolve the debt ceiling issue. He said that many Congressional leaders are personal friends of long-standing, but that many members have very different visions for the same ends, creating significant conflicts to moving forward. One task, he said to scattered applause, is to prove that Washington is not broken.

The second panel focused on infrastructure and sustainable communities. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a 14-year veteran of Congress, told the officials that transportation is bipartisan, which Congress sometimes forgets. Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Housing and Development, said that the average family spends 52 cents of every dollar earned on housing and transportation costs, and that survey was taken before the recent gas increases. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson said that an adequate supply of clean water is an economic incentive. All three Cabinet officials elicited a number of questions from the audience, including local bridges and roads, aging housing stock, and the impact of federal installations which, until recently, refused to accept responsibility for stormwater run-off mitigation.

The final panel of senior executives, all women, discussed health care. The Medicaid block grant program approved by the House of Representatives is a bad idea, and repeals a lot of existing policy, not just new programs. There was general agreement that many eligible people still are uninsured and not able to access services, and that needs to change. The audience members noted that, since many localities operate their own hospitals, cost drivers and a new approach called accountable health care organizations are important concepts to recognize.

The meeting was nearing the end of its advertised time of 5:30 p.m., and I noticed that, apparently during a short break before the last panel, a presidential seal had been placed on the podium. I also noticed some non-verbal communication between the moderator and senior staff, then a Secret Service agent slipped in the side door. A moment later, the moderator interrupted and said simply “Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States.”

President Obama entered to sustained applause from the bipartisan group, now standing, as a staffer quietly placed a speech notebook on the podium. The President spoke mostly off-the-cuff, consulting his speech notes only when quoting statistics or numbers. He said that we all need to be engaged in the tough issues, ramp up our game, and become more competitive in the world if we are to “win the future,” which sounds like it may be the theme of his 2012 campaign. The term was used many times during the day’s presentations. Alluding to his announcement of Osama bin Laden’s killing less than 48 hours before, Mr. Obama said that he was not interested in growing the federal government, remarking that he has more than enough to do.

NACo had been working on getting a White House meeting for many months, and it certainly was worth the effort. The opportunity to have substantive discussions with senior administration officials, including five Cabinet members, and hearing from the President and Vice President in person, is unprecedented in recent memory for local officials, and I was privileged to be included. I hope this is another step in the effort to restore the partnership between federal and local officials and agencies that languished in the previous administration.


Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]