November 26, 2014

Season of Thanks

Currently reading On His Own Terms by Richard Norton Smith / 40 days until 114th Congress / 84 days until Spring Training

Thanksgiving is a natural time to reflect on the past year and really consider the moments for which to be thankful. But honestly, sometimes I find it difficult to remember to say thanks. These are rough times for low-income programs.

In my travels throughout the country and especially my time spent in Washington, it’s pretty easy to focus on things I wish were better. The feeling that nothing is going right can be pervasive with an extremely divided, partisan and extremely unproductive Congress. I’m saddened by the election losses of good friends in Congress.  And, every day, I grow angrier at the constantly widening gap between haves and have-nots. To top it off, I know the agencies I work for desperately need more resources to meet the needs of their communities.

This week, more than any other week of the year, I set aside the frustrations and disappointments. When I reflect on what I have to be thankful for, one thing stands out—who I work for, every day, on Capitol Hill.  I get to advocate for Community Action knowing that there are nearly one thousand agencies out there working each and every day to improve their communities. Some of my counterparts hang their hat each night after working on new tax breaks for whatever special interest group is that day’s highest bidder. I couldn’t do that. Getting active with the Community Action network early on in my career through the mentorship of Sargent Shriver is truly one of the greatest honors of my life, and I will continue to be grateful for the opportunity presented to me so many years ago.

Moreover, I’m deeply thankful to you—those who work in Community Action. All of us at some time in our life faced a decision point—do we turn right or left—do we dedicate our lives to our communities or to another pursuit? If you take the time to reflect on it, knowing that each member of our staff, in all of our organizations, including ourselves, made a choice to help people, to add value to our communities, is quite humbling. I want to make sure you know, people notice and your work is not done in a vacuum. Members of Congress brag about the work Community Action Agencies do in their districts. The stories of the good our network does seem endless. Thank you for continuing to choose to support our countries most vulnerable citizens.

Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

November 21, 2014

Hope Springs Eternal

Currently reading On His Own Terms by Richard Norton Smith / 45 days until 114th Congress / 89 days until Spring Training

These are some difficult times in US Politics, but I still believe that we can strive to accomplish much in 2015 with the 114th Congress. I don’t know if it’s the holiday season or not, but I certainly detect a desire by Republicans and Democrats to work together. In general, Democrats were humbled by the election and say that they are prepared to be more bi-partisan. Of course, bi-partisanship is much more desirable when you’re in the minority. I am thoroughly convinced that Congressional Republicans are eager to prove they can govern responsibly. In the weeks after the election (and before President Obama’s speech last night), I’ve noticed less partisan rhetoric and more compliments about the opposing party.

Last week, I blogged about what it means to say goodbye to defeated and retiring politicians. The Members I’ve been meeting with are reacting differently to their recent “unemployment.” I’ve been disappointed that some seem bitter and angry about their loss. More, however, have accepted their loss and feel thankful for their careers working for the American people. I regret that some have lost sight of what a privilege and rarity it is to serve in Congress.

There is some doom and gloom being spread in Washington—likely aided in some part by the dreary weather in the nation’s capitol. Community Action lost a lot of good friends, and it’s sometimes hard to stay hopeful. Folks are discussing how hard the 114th Congress will be on domestic policy programs, especially low-income programs. We also are facing a new Congress where only around 20% have voted on a CSBG reauthorization bill. This could affect our success in pushing a new CSBG reauthorization bill next year. The make-up of the new Committee chairs in the Senate and House is almost entirely male, which is a step backward in the Senate and a recent standard in the House. There is also concern among Republican and Democratic leadership that moderates will struggle to manage the Tea Party,

Personally, I am sick of this spin cycle after the election. The bottom line is that Democrats got trounced on November 4th.  They have lost over 70 House seats since 2010, and their 8-year reign of controlling the Senate is over. Across the country, I heard one message over and over again—Democrats have lost touch. Bernie Sanders believes Democrats are no longer seen as “a party representing the working class in this country.” Democrats and pundits have blamed it on a variety of factors from the President’s unpopularity, low voter turnout and Voter ID laws to big money and outside groups. Sugar coating the situation doesn’t help. If the election was a message directed at the White House—which I certainly think it was—it proved fatal to any possible Democratic gains in Congress.

Despite this, I am an optimist. I like the fact that Hal Rogers is House Appropriations Chair. Congressman Rogers believes in the institution. He believes in making Congress work and passing Appropriations bills. He is adamantly against a government shutdown. In these times, Hal Rogers is the perfect member of Congress for the Appropriations Chairmanship. Additionally, Rep. Tom Cole is set to take over the Labor HHS Subcommittee. He is a moderate Congressman who believes in Congress. He is not a bomb-thrower, and he is likely to accomplish a lot as Chair.

On the Senate side, Mike Enzi may challenge Jeff Sessions for budget chairmanship. Enzi is quite conservative, but is a well-respected Senator and is seen as someone who is able to get much done. If he takes over the chairmanship, Congress has a better chance of accomplishing more. Democrats and Republicans alike believe themselves to be Enzi’s best friend. In Senator Kennedy’s autobiography True Compass, he recounts the successful bi-partisan legislation he and Enzi worked on together.

I also have great hope for bi-partisanship next year. In the lame-duck session so far, many ambassadorships and Presidential appointments that were previously stagnant are passing in the Senate. When Republicans take over the Senate, McConnell has said he is committed to compromise to make the Senate work again. Republicans seem determined to prove themselves as House and Senate leaders. They want to demonstrate they can responsibly govern, and are determined to prevent another government shutdown. The last time Republicans had this sizeable of a majority in Congress, they lost huge the next cycle. Republicans must be willing to compromise and re-engage with Democrats to have a successful 114th Congress.

We may have challenges ahead, but I see new opportunities with the 114th Congress. There are a record number of women and minorities in the upcoming Congress. Republicans and Democrats alike are softening their partisan anger and seem more willing to work together. But, it’s hard not to reflect back sometimes at more favorable times. I still walk by the Russell Senate Office Building and miss catching a whiff of Ted Kennedy’s cigar and thinking of the times where large bi-partisan majorities in the Senate got things done. We must look, however, toward the 114th Congress. I am optimistic that Democrats and Republicans can work together to govern. For the health of the county, I both parties must rise to the challenge.

November 12, 2014

Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye is never easy. Whether in my personal life or professional life, saying goodbye is hard. And unfortunately, this last month has been and will be a month of goodbyes.

Charles Braithwait.jpg
A few weeks ago, Charles Braithwait (co-founder of NCAF) passed away. After Charlie fell ill, his wife, Sandra, would make sure we were up-to-date on his condition and that he was up-to-date on our’s. A week before Charlie passed, I was able to visit with him in person. We talked about the good times -- his fighting the Nixon administration from shutting our doors and, from 1981 on, working together at NCAF. Charlie’s resolute advocacy for Community Action hadn’t faltered once since 1965, and it didn’t that day either. The flame for Community Action still burned.

I had the privilege of traveling to Osceola, Missouri and speaking at his funeral, at the Sheldon-Goodrich Funeral Home. While there, I was able to listen to the impact he had on others. Charlie was not just a great man, he was a good man. Charles will be forever missed.

In the upcoming weeks, we’ll have more goodbyes here on Capitol Hill. In an election with the lowest voter turnout in 72 years, we lost seven House co-sponsors of the Community Economic Opportunity Act, and three have races still too close to call. We’ve lost good friends on important committees such as:

  • Senate Appropriations: Tom Harkin (D-IA), Tim Johnson (D-SD) and Mark Pryor (D-AR)
  • Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee: Mark Udall (D-CO)
  • Senate HELP Committee: Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Kay Hagan (D-NC)
  • House Appropriations: Tom Latham (R-IA), Jim Moran (D-VA), Ed Pastor (D-AZ), and Bill Owens (D-NY)
  • House Education and the Workforce Committee: Buck McKeon (R-CA), George Miller (D-CA), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY), John Tierney (D-MA), Rush Holt (D-NJ) and Tim Bishop (D-NY)
  • House Energy and Commerce Committee: Bruce Braley (D-IA) and John Barrow (D-GA)

Republicans hold their largest majority since just after World War II. New members started their orientation process today, while members who have lost their seats began packing up their offices and shredding files. Just in the walk from our office in the Hall of the States building to the Rayburn House Office Building, you can run into a Congresswoman-elect thrilled about starting her time in Congress and another Congressman grieving the loss of his opportunity to serve a 2nd term in Congress. To add another complicated dynamic, some members do not yet know if they are coming back-- consider one of our primary co-sponsors for HR3854 Congressman Jim Costa (CA-16). As a bipartisan advocate, we share both the high and the lows of every election season, but boy, can it be awkward. A one mile walk has the emotional turbulence of landing the Spirit of St. Louis in Bermuda.

How do we adequately say thank you to those unexpectedly on their way out? I struggle to do this, something I realized after Senator Tom Daschle lost in 2004. Maybe it was the shock of the situation, the difficulty of saying goodbye or the desire not to trouble someone during a tumultuous time, but I felt I never really got to thank him for his support and everything he did for Community Action in the way he deserved. I’m committed to not letting that happen this year. We’d like to give each of our friends a package of thank you cards from throughout the country-- will you contribute a thank you card for the members listed below?* Please send the card to our mailing address: P.O. Box 78214 Washington, D.C. 20013 by December 1st.

Senator Tom Harkin
Senator Mark Pryor
Senator Kay Hagan
Senator Mark Begich
Congressman John Tierney
Congressman Tim Bishop
Congressman Bruce Braley
*You might notice these are all Democrats.
We have lots of Republican friends too; they just happen to have won their races.

Though saying goodbye is hard, last week, as a whole, wasn’t a surprise. We’ve already seen posturing by the White House and Congressional leaders. While Mitch McConnell and John Boehner argue that the election results are a mandate for the Republican agenda, Harry Reid believes the results demonstrate the electorate’s desire for bipartisanship. Regardless of your perspective on the message sent by voters, Community Action is uniquely positioned to talk with Republicans and Democrats on poverty. We still have allies on both sides of the aisle who have seen the difference Community Action Agencies make in their home communities.

Through NCAF’s work, I want Community Action to be an example of how Congress can work together, and I believe this is possible. However, we can’t do it if we don’t listen to and work with a broad political spectrum of members. Over the upcoming months, we’ll be coming to you to help us line up all the pieces necessary to be successful on Capitol Hill. We can make this challenge a tremendous opportunity both for our network and the health of our democracy.

Now, to close out this blog, I would like to give you the opportunity to spend some time with our retiring hero -- Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA).