Focus now has to be on our most vulnerable

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 3, 2004

As we prepare to begin the work of the second half of the 108th Congress, I thought this would be a good time to reflect on the lessons of my first year in Washington and the challenges we face as we approach the New Year.

Since arriving in Washington one year ago as the representative for Alabama’s 7th District, I have gained a greater appreciation for the ways our government works.

I often say that you can’t take the politics out of politics, but the challenge we have as elected officials and leaders of this country is to maintain a sense of responsibility regarding the people we represent.

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It is possible to get things done in Washington, but it requires creativity and hard work.

I passed legislation restoring funds unfairly cut from historically black colleges and universities.

We successfully advocated that the Commerce Department enforce rules protecting our catfish farmers from unfair foreign competition.

We helped secure federal funds to build a Youth Development Center in Selma, to begin construction of a Community Center in Uniontown, and to provide for sewage disposal in Choctaw County.

These are real successes that will improve the conditions of many of my constituents.

To be sure there have been numerous disappointments.

The Republican-led House refused to even permit a vote on a bill that I sponsored to increase the Child Tax Credit for working class families.

My efforts to create a new federal agency for the Black Belt have to date been unsuccessful because some question the wisdom of spending $100 million a year in the poorest region of our country while they advocate a $15 billion commitment for a return to the moon.

At every turn, the Republican-led House has favored policy that will only widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, further removing us from the ideal of a fair playing field for the American worker.

The tax cut passed last year drains our budget while providing no real relief for the overwhelming majority of taxpayers living in my district: the average person reading this article received a tax cut of less than $40 per month.

Congress has failed to take adequate steps to help uninsured Americans obtain health insurance and the recently enacted prescription drug plan provided only spotty coverage at best for seniors while taking unwise steps toward privatizing the Medicare system.

Here in Alabama, our neighbors with the least ability to defend themselves are being threatened by state budget cuts that will erode the state’s capacity to deliver vital services and will further compromise our ability to expand opportunity in this state.

Alabama has frozen enrollment for the state’s children’s health insurance program.

Our Medicaid commitment is under attack because of our increasingly limited ability to provide the resources to match the federal contribution to the program.

As the Legislature prepares to go back into session, our teachers are threatened with reduced health insurance benefits and diminished retirement options.

My vision is one of an America in which our wage earners have a fair chance to compete and to rise to middle class, where the quality of healthcare is not a function of the accident of geography, where our workers are not unfairly sacrificed to global competition, and where all of our communities offer a public education system that will prepare our children for the 21st century.

The primary lesson of my first year in Congress is this:

more than ever, our children and our most vulnerable need aggressive, effective representation and that is what I will continue to provide to the 615,000 constituents in my district.