McGovern: Government needs to invest now

Congressman James "Jim" McGovern, Second Congressional District, Democrat

Congressman James "Jim" McGovern, Second Congressional District, Democrat

Congressman James McGovern told a Franklin County group Friday that he’s beginning to have “a glimmer of hope that maybe some common sense is beginning to prevail” on Capitol Hill, but he called for a more far-thinking and humane approach as Congress proceeds in this election year.

Speaking to about 100 community leaders at a Franklin County Chamber of Commerce breakfast, the Worcester Democrat said, “In Washington, we need to think bigger, and we need to think more imaginatively. In Washington, if we can just not shut the government down, everybody thinks it’s a great day.”

The $1.012 trillion budget deal that keeps the government funded through September “kind of chips away at sequestration” and offers what McGovern called “a little bit of hope. “

Still, he said, “I think the overall budget numbers are awful ... We’re waist-deep, rather than neck-deep, in manure. And hooray. But we’re moving the needle in the right direction.”

While McGovern said he believes that Washington should be able to get through the coming budget-making process without shutting down and “a lot of drama and a lot of manufactured crises,” there remains a looming debate this spring over whether to allow the debt ceiling to be raised.

But he warned the gathering at the Greenfield Corporate Center, “If we were to default on our debt, it would affect every single person in this room. Our bond ratings would drop, our credibility in the global economy would be diminished. It would be disastrous for our economy.”

When it came to indiscriminate, across-the-board budget slashing that took place under sequestration, McGovern said, “I thought it was such a dumb idea that it would never happen.” Yet, he added, “No idea is too dumb in Washington. It happened, and as a result our economy paid dearly. And some of the most vulnerable people in our communities paid dearly, ” including cuts in Head Start, food and nutrition programs and a devastating approach to programs that affect people’s lives in real ways.

An $11 billion automatic cut in Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits reducing a three-member family’s monthly food-stamp allotment by $20 would be deepened by an additional $8.5 billion reduction in a program under the proposed Farm Bill that provides an additional $90 monthly allotment to elderly and disabled heating assistance beneficiaries.

“We’re being told by the proponents that those people won’t lose their benefits,” he said, but the effect would be $110 a month less in their SNAP allotment. “I don’t know how people are going to deal with that.”

The second-ranking minority member of the House Agriculture Committee added, “Farmers in this country do deserve certainty, and they should have a long-term farm bill, but my line in the sand is I don’t want to support a Farm Bill that makes people more hungry.”

McGovern is among members of Congress who have written to President Barack Obama requesting additional funding for the Low Income Heating Energy Assistance Program which, because of sequestration, is down by $15 million from last year.

“Obviously, the need is significant,” McGovern said after his speech. “We’re experiencing some of the coldest weather we’ve had in years, and these people need to heat their homes. Community Action, which helps about 9,000 low-income families in Franklin and Hampshire counties with energy bills, already has seen 3,400 families who have used up their fuel allotment for the year, said Peter Wingate, its energy program director, adding that the agency is seeking an additional $20 million from the state as a stopgap measure.

McGovern, pointing to the ability of this region’s farmers to speak out and get the Food and Drug Administration to rethink its onerous food safety rule proposal, emphasized, “We can influence federal policy here, as well as state policy, but we’ve got to be engaged.”

And he urged, “We need to get away from this notion that our goal needs to be making government smaller and smaller. Make government as small as it needs to be — but we’re going to need government to help us get through these difficult times.”

It’s exactly at the time the economy is sluggish that we need to be creative, he said.

“You know this from your businesses,” McGovern told the group of business and community leaders. “Sometimes you have to invest up front in order to make money down the road. The notion that we should not be investing in our infrastructure, that we just can’t afford to do it ... to me is really a misguided approach. We have bridges in Massachusetts that are older than most of the states in this country. They need to be repaired.”

McGovern, pointing to China’s tremendous investment in its infrastructure and to the economic benefits that could be realized by investing in this nation’s intercity rail network, “is vitally important. We need to be able to compete with the rest of the world in this global economy.”

But especially, he said, we need to combine the “out-of-the box thinking” he’s discovered in this region since his Congressional district was expanded a year ago, with what he called its “real compassion for those who are less fortunate.”

“We need to make sure these safety net programs don’t get obliterated at a time when there’s the most need. ... We need to be a little more thoughtful in Washington and not everything can be answered with a five-second sound bite” like calling Obama the “food-stamp president,” when the reality is that programs that help the needy are most needed when the economy is bad.

“We have 50 million people in this country, the richest country in the history of the world, who are hungry,” he said. “And I think that’s appalling, and I think it’s maddening because it’s something that we can deal with,” plus it has economic ramifications by driving up costs to deal with avoidable health problems.

McGovern also called for raising the minimum wage, and restoring extended unemployment benefits “not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for the economy.

“There are people who work full-time who are so poor that they are eligible for SNAP and other government assistance programs. If you work in this country, you ought not to have to live in poverty.”

You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

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