The 111th Congress has been sworn in at one of the most challenging moments in our history. Today we prepare ourselves to meet that challenge, full of confidence and hope for a new year — but chastened by the knowledge that the value of all of our fall and winter promises reaches zero as soon as we raise our right hands and take the oath of office. From that point on, we can expect to be judged by results alone.
Our work will begin with a response to the economic crisis that has led to job losses every month for an entire year. The first item on our agenda is recovery legislation aimed at getting our economy back on track and creating or saving 3 million jobs.
Middle-class tax relief will be a key part of the economic recovery package. It will also include funding to renew our nation’s worn-down infrastructure, including roads, bridges and water systems — as well as to build the advanced infrastructure, such as broadband and green technology, that the 21st century demands. In addition, we plan to invest in new energy technology and give fiscal relief to the hardest-hit states, in the form of Medicaid and other assistance. Finally, the recovery package can stimulate our economy by seeing to those who are most in need, with temporary expansions of food stamp programs and extensions of unemployment insurance.
Congress will also need to follow through on President Bush’s decision to lend funds to help stabilize America’s automakers. That decision was necessary: The collapse of the American auto industry would have a disastrous impact on 3 million workers, not to mention our national psychology and national security. At the same time, though, the Big Three must take advantage of the bridge loans to become competitive, job-creating companies once again, building cost-effective, fuel-efficient cars. So it is essential that Congress holds them to their pledges of reform and plans for long-term viability, providing strong oversight to ensure that the federal funds are spent for their intended purpose.
We must also be watchful of the original economic stabilization funds, making sure that they go to help homeowners in danger of foreclosure, and not just banks.
Yes, working to stabilize our economy means that deficits will get worse before they get better. But failure to reverse our rapid economic decline will dig the budget hole deeper, as revenues plummet and spending on safety net programs increases. And as Martin Feldstein, former chief economic adviser to President Reagan, has written: “The only way to prevent a deepening recession will be a temporary program of increased government spending.”
It is also important to remember that we would be in a much sounder fiscal position today if President Bush had not practiced the policies of borrow-and-spend so recklessly over the past eight years.
Republican economics turned a projected 10-year surplus of $5.6 trillion into the prospect of trillion-dollar deficits!
Our short-term commitment to creating jobs must, therefore, be matched by a long-term commitment to restoring fiscal sanity. We can begin by eliminating waste line-by-line, as President-elect Obama has promised. More importantly, Democrats and Republicans have to seek bipartisan consensus on the reform of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Entitlement reform will present us with a number of difficult choices; but with every session Congress puts those choices off, the more our priorities and possibilities are constrained.
The final piece of fiscal responsibility is smart spending: making wise investments today, in order to reap savings tomorrow. For instance, investment in new technologies can bring the price of energy down in the long term, and the construction of a national grid can save energy and money, as well.
Smart spending also means developing the health information technology that can reduce inefficiencies in our healthcare system — a system for which we pay two times more per capita than almost every other country. It is also essential to expand healthcare access, because our current patchwork system places huge costs on businesses and sends sicker patients to our entitlement programs, costing Medicare and Medicaid money each year.
What I have outlined is an extremely ambitious agenda; the tough times ahead call for nothing less. In all my years in Congress, I have never seen a more difficult session than the one that begins today. But Democrats will rise to this occasion if we remember, and hold fast to, our promise of change.
Hoyer is the House majority leader.