Top Dems see opportunity in chaos

  • Congressman Jim McGovern Carol Lollis


For The Recorder
Monday, April 17, 2017

With various appointments by President Donald Trump still not made and continued reversals and flip flops in the administration’s objectives, a sense of chaos and drama exists in the nation’s capital that Massachusetts congressmen Richard Neal and Jim McGovern say provides an opening for Democrats to be an effective opposition party.

On Friday, Reps. Neal, D-Springfield, and McGovern, D-Worcester, who represent the cities and towns in western Massachusetts, laid out a vision that includes increased infrastructure spending, protecting the environment and preventing climate change, pursuing meaningful tax reform and affordable education, and ensuring that the Affordable Care Act, President Barack Obama’s signature achievement, remains intact.

“These are very challenging times and we have a president who behaves in a very erratic way,” McGovern said. “It’s difficult to know what he thinks or believes. He changes his mind every two minutes.”

Both congressmen view the defeat of Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare as the first major victory of this new era, ensuring 24 million Americans will keep their coverage.

“Our role needs to be one of resistance in the face of policies we strongly disagree with,” McGovern said.

Common ground

Neal said it can be difficult to escape the “chaotic atmosphere” that prevails in Washington, but he is confident there can be common ground with the White House, particularly on large-scale infrastructure projects.

“My argument is we haven’t done a big infrastructure plan in America for a long time,” said Neal, the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee.

“I’m game for a trillion bucks,” Neal added.

Neal said he would prioritize continued rail extensions, especially east-west connections, as a way to get people to commute to jobs and expand the number of places they can live. This would follow the tax cuts and stimulus under Obama that got north-south rail improvements completed and are benefiting the region.

McGovern, too, said rail is essential and he would love to see a way to connect the Pioneer Valley to Worcester. He added that he is committed to having the best railroads in the world.

Even though Trump campaigned on infrastructure spending, McGovern said he has not seen any plan yet.

“Massachusetts is an old state, we have bridges older than most other states in the country,” McGovern said.

But the congressmen bring disparate views on building new pipelines to carry natural gas.

Energy policy

McGovern said he is opposed to pipelines because they are not a 50-year solution for energy demands.

“We need a national energy policy, and here in Massahcusdetts we ought to take the lead on it,” McGovern said.

The brainpower in the state can provide the research to move away from fossil fuels. “I think we could be a model for the rest of the country,” McGovern said.

McGovern observes that the state has to lead since Trump and his cabinet don’t believe in climate change. “There’s a serious assault on science and fact that is really frightening to me,” McGovern said.

Neal, though, said enhancing natural gas capacity is the “bridgeable path” to greater reliance on renewables like wind and solar, which only account for 8 to 10 percent of power generation sources. This is an important solution to the communities in Franklin and Berkshire counties, the only regions of the state with declining populations.

“Part of that is loss of economic activity,” Neal said, observing he has spoken to farmers and Berkshire paper mills that are seeking a consistent, inexpensive source of energy.

Neal agrees with McGovern that the Kinder Morgan pipeline was not the solution, that it was badly done and an inept proposal whose developers attempted to take a sledgehammer to those who opposed it.

Chance for Dems?

Rebuilding the Democratic Party, which doesn’t control any branches of the federal government, remains an objective as the congressmen deal with Trump.

Neal said he is concerned that one-third of Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives hail from Massachusetts, California and New York, and that the party has lost working-class voters and didn’t meet their needs.

“One of the things I’ve tried to get back to is for the Democratic Party to talk about aspirations,” Neal said.

He sees community colleges and apprentice programs as ways to support some of the unfilled 650,000 tech jobs that exist nationally, expressed worry about the number of people not going back to work in the aftermath of the Great Recession and the need to rebuild trust with those in labor unions.

“There’s a huge challenge here for all of us as it relates to organized labor,” Neal said.

McGovern said he has also met with constituents who voted for Trump, and called his political philosophy one that promotes economic security.

“For Democrats, I think we need to bring back some of the people we lost,” McGovern said.

More chaos predicted

As much as Neal said he would like to see stability instead of chaos, he’s not sure it will happen, with many mid-level appointments by Trump still unfilled.

Neal said he recently met with Gary Cohn, Trump’s chief economic adviser, and planned for his committee to move onto tax reform. But then, less than two days later, Trump was saying health care overhaul would be tried one more time. Tax reform in Trump’s vision, Neal said, may depend on an estimated $839 billion cut to Medicaid.

Neal said he would seek tax reform that would improve lives for all families, not the President George W. Bush-style tax cuts that overwhelmingly favored high-income earners.

“We haven’t done anything with it since 1986, except to gum it up more,” Neal said.

He would support closing loopholes at the top, providing middle-class tax relief, allowing tuition expenditures to be written off and capping deductions for second homes.

Both Neal and McGovern said they are worried about a looming crisis in retirement savings, with Neal suggesting the government use the tax code to incentivize these savings for young people. McGovern said he would also look at innovative ways to have people put money away when working and provide a government match, which is better investment of public money than military.

McGovern said he is concerned that Trump may cut programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the McGovern-Dole Food for Education Program, which combats hunger and provide education in developing nations.

“I think when people are grateful, they don’t want to blow you up,” McGovern said.

Foreign policy

On foreign policy, Neal said he supports Trump’s recent airstrikes in Syria, using 59 tomahawk missiles, and the decision to drop the weapon dubbed the “Mother of All Bombs” this week in Afghanistan. “I think he’s trying to make a statement. Military strikes over the last few days have clearly indicated that,” Neal said.

McGovern, though, said he is worried about the price tag, that the government spent close to $100 million, and Congress should be involved in the authorization of this use of force. “Allowing the wars to go forward and expand and proliferate and no congressional involvement is a dereliction of our duty,” McGovern said.

He wouldn’t support the bombings because Trump has no evidence of a policy, and he worries that the United States will be drawn into a long-term war with North Korea and its president, Kim Jong-un.

“Just because there is a nut running North Korea doesn’t mean we have to act nuts here,” McGovern said.

McGovern is circulating a bipartisan letter he hopes to deliver to House Speaker Paul Ryan asking that Congress be allowed to do its job and bring in experts on foreign policy before making any decisions related to foreign entanglements.

Even though Neal said he endorsed Trump’s limited military forays, he continues to appreciate Obama’s thinking.

But Neal said he worries about continued changes to Trump’s political philosophy, from the need for foreign intervention, allegations of Chinese currency manipulation and opposition to NAFTA, which he’d planned to take a chainsaw to. “It looks like he’s going to take a butter knife to NAFTA,” Neal said.

The Trump doctrine, he said, will be created by diplomacy and military action. Neal said any escalations will need congressional actions and a transparent public debate.

“I think part of it is making it up as they go,” Neal said. “It’s certainly more aggressive.”