For local elected officials in the National Capital Region, meeting with your Member of Congress or their staff usually is not difficult. We often see them informally at social and community events, and don’t have to travel far to Capitol Hill for a scheduled meeting.
Not so for most local elected officials and their regional councils across the country. For them to get to Washington to advocate for local and regional issues means time and travel expense. The winter round of legislative conferences for membership organizations began this week with the 2012 National Conference of Regions by the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC).
More than 220 local elected officials and regional council executive directors gathered at a downtown hotel to discuss issues of importance to regions, including emergency management, environment, homeland security, housing, transportation, and the national debt. Congressman Gerry Connolly (D, VA-11) addressed the group on Monday, presenting a birds-eye view of the challenges to get anything done in a deeply divided Congress. Several attendees told me they appreciated Gerry’s frank assessment of the situation on the Hill.
The transportation bill moving, or not moving, through Congress was the focus of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and House Transportation Committee Chairman Dan Mica (R, FL-7) during lunch on Tuesday. Secretary LaHood pointed out that President Obama’s proposed budget, which was released the day before, took a “big view” that would be paid for by using monies not needed for the Iraq War anymore, and the Federal Highway Trust Fund. The budget is based on $460 billion in spending in six years to improve American highways, bridges, railways, including high speed rail, and transit. The budget proposal also consolidates 55 existing programs into just five. The House Transportation bill, he pointed out, had more than 300 amendments, and transit funding was hollowed out and flipped to roads. He urged the attendees to storm the Hill and insist on bipartisan support to get a bill passed. If you can get Congress to move, he said, you get a transportation bill, a jobs bill, etc. When asked what one thing should be gleaned from his speech, he said “pass a bill that moves us forward, that’s paid for, and reflects our values, for transit, highways, and bridges.” Of special interest to Virginians was his focus on ports, such as Norfolk and Hampton Roads. The widening of the Panama Canal will have a huge positive effect on ports, which are economic engines and provide jobs, he said.
Chairman Mica took a different approach, noting that his committee is made up of 59 members, including 20 freshman Republicans, most of whom have no experience with transportation policy and budgets, and who took very conservative stances during their election campaigns. Mica, too, would like to see a transportation bill passed, but he laid the recalcitrance at the feet of the Obama Administration. However, he agreed with Secretary LaHood about the importance of having bipartisan support for the bill. The general response from the conference attendees, however, was the next steps to take when the bill is killed next week.
Although we are here in the white-hot center of global politics, it is interesting to hear the concerns of local officials across the country, who are equally frustrated about the pace of congressional action in this presidential election year.
Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]