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Michael Michaud

Start to the new Congress: a mixed bag
By Congressman Mike Michaud
Jan 13, 2011 - 12:20:59 AM

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Every two years a new Congress starts. Now, more than ever, both parties need to use this new session to work together to pass policies that will boost our economy and create jobs. We also need to focus on reducing our national debt.

But so far, this Congress's actions are a mixed bag. On the one hand, the House voted in a bipartisan way to pass a bill to trim the budgets of members of Congress, committees and leadership offices. During these tough economic times American families are tightening their belts and Congress must do the same. The measure that passed the House is expected to save approximately $35 million. While this is a symbolic vote in many respects, I am hopeful that it leads to more serious deficit reduction efforts moving forward.

In the same week, after members of the House were sworn in, the rules that govern the way the chamber works were adopted. This vote on the rules is important because it sets the stage for how the House will conduct business day in and day out for the next two years. Unfortunately, I think we've gotten off to a bad start.

The rules package that was passed effectively guts "pay as you go" (PAYGO) budget rules, which led to the budget surpluses in the 1990's and were reinstated a few years ago. PAYGO requires that spending and tax provisions be paid for through offsets in the budget elsewhere. The rules package that the new majority was successful in passing actually exempts tax policy and other major items from these rules, including an extension of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, a repeal of health care reform and the cost of new trade agreements.

Mainers I've talked to know that both tax policy and spending affect our overall debt, and they want our entire fiscal house to be put in order. We need to get serious about addressing our record deficits. But this rules package represents a huge step back that puts us on the wrong track, making it unlikely that we will be able to enact serious change.

But I'm not saying this just because I now find myself in the minority party in Congress. When Democrats sought to make these types of exemptions two years ago I opposed their rules package as well. In fact, I was one of only a few members to vote against my own party on it. But this year, especially with the American people clearly clamoring for action on the economy, our debt and a slew of other top issues, we've seriously stumbled right out of the gate.

But to make matters worse, the new rules package could also upend the way states receive federal transportation funding.

Federal highway funding is currently distributed to states through a formula. The funding comes from user fees and things like the gas tax, which are deposited in a trust fund and used specifically to reinvest in each states' transportation and infrastructure priorities. In Congress, the amount of funding that states receive and the programs they have access to are revisited and adjusted every 5 or 6 years to reflect national trends and needs.

This funding approach is used for a number of important reasons, including that it provides states the ability to plan longer term infrastructure improvements that can often span a number of years. And previous House rules protected this. In fact, former Republican Congressman Bud Shuster championed a rule that prevented the funds that build up in the trust fund to be used to mask the size of the federal deficit.

Unfortunately, the rules package that passed the House changes these important rules that protect states' highway funding, opening the process up to potential cuts and the whims of the broken, annual appropriations process. This would directly affect not only our aging infrastructure, but also the jobs that result from its updating. Despite being strongly opposed by everyone from the new Republican Chairman of the Transportation Committee to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, it made it into the final rules package that passed.

I'm disappointed that the new majority has decided to slip these major policy changes into an arcane rules package. This runs contrary to the message of open government and reform that a majority of Americans sent last fall. Despite this, it is my sincere hope that the new Congress can work together to build on our shared commitment to improving the economy while avoiding the same old Washington ways that the American people have clearly rejected.

Congressman Mike Michaud

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