December 15, 2014

The CRomnibus

Currently reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson / 21 days until 114th Congress / 65 days until Spring Training

This time of year is bittersweet. The CRomnibus bill passed last week with much fanfare, but not much good news for any domestic programs whose funding is historically low. The government, though, will remain open. As it turns out, the American people don’t expect much more than that. Only 13% of Americans are confident that Congress can work together in the new Congress. The New York Times argues that the fight this week indicates that Congress has lost the ability to compromise. Despite this, I am trying to remain optimistic for the 114th Congress.

With the CRomnibus passage last week and the spending bills in recent years, it is growing clearer that Community Action cannot count on Appropriations bills to garner resources. The good news is that Congress continues to reject Obama’s attempt to shut down our programs on a bi-partisan basis.

Funding for domestic discretionary programs has been stagnant for the last several years. Unless it is an emerging crisis such as Ebola or border security, increased funding is unlikely. We have new friends on Weatherization and LIHEAP funding is consistent, but most of our programs are struggling with resources. I know that Community Action needs more funding, but until CSBG is reauthorized, it is simply not going to happen.

Next year, I am committed to focus more than in a long time on getting our agencies the resources they need to serve their communities. My biggest goal (more than peace on earth or an exciting World Series) is to bring Community Action into a secure funding environment. It may be a little early to think of Christmas next year, but I hope by December 2015 I can give Community action that gift. 

December 8, 2014

Ready to Legislate

Currently reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson (for book club!) / 28 days until 114th Congress / 72 days until Spring Training

The glow of the election among Republicans has worn off. They’re rolling up their sleeves and getting ready to get things done. In my conversations with Republicans, I am impressed with how prepared they are to legislate. It is clear that they see the election as a mandate against Obama, but they also see it as a mandate to legislate. This is a very positive development. A Republican Congress and a Democratic White House last happened in the 106th Congress, during which more laws were enacted than any session since.

The Republican leadership is confident they can manage the tea party, and pass legislation. I’ve been around for long enough to tell when Members are sincere about getting things done. Part of this reflects confidence in Boehner and McConnell. Both care about the institution and want to legislate. One senior Republican’s staff that I had coffee with this week referred to Boehner and McConnell as the “two members most dedicated to the institution of Congress”—meaning, they are invested in the success of Congress as an entity. Despite the Democrats’ focus on extreme Republican ideals—seen on the tweets below—it looks like the Senate and House could have a very productive two years.

Republicans are going to reach out to Democrats in 2015; I hope that Democrats reach back. The bitterness and finger-pointing seems to have died down among Democrats. I believe there is room for compromise, but many are already looking to the 2016 election cycle, which will only hinder bipartisan cooperation.

I am looking now at how the CRomnibus appropriations bill comes together. There needs to be bipartisan support in the House and Senate to get this through. Both parties seem confident that it will pass easily and prevent a government shutdown. The CRomnibus will be an early test on bipartisanship in the new legislative atmosphere.

It would be difficult to overestimate Obama’s immigration actions. Many Republicans see Obama’s immigration reforms as a huge overstep. One Congressman called the action “an unprecedented executive power grab.” In an attempt to prevent its effect on the CRomnibus, Speaker Boehner calmed Conservative members through a tea party bill against the action. This bill is largely symbolic, and when a Republican Member was asked whether the party was serious about the bill, he mused that he wasn’t sure if the co-sponsor was even taking it seriously. This bill shouldn’t spark too strong of a reaction in the next year, but the effects of Obama’s executive action are likely to reverberate throughout the 114th Congress.

In the next few weeks, I’m watching who goes to which committees especially House Education and Workforce. I’m worried that moderate Republicans won’t want to join an extremely partisan committee. I still believe there is bi-partisan support for low-income programs, though much is getting lost in rhetoric. Democrats and Republicans both showed support community-backed programs like Community Action.

Since the election, half a dozen House Republicans have talked to me about wanting to visit their agencies, and see good community programs in action. I want to go with them. I also want to build in time when I go to annual conferences around the country to visit agencies, see innovative programs and talk to staff and local elected officials.

We need to get better at talking about our agencies. We need to get better at answering the Republican questions in 2015 on accountability, performance and moving people out of poverty. We are hosting a webinar in a few weeks on December 17th and December 18th where we will discuss working with the 114th Congress. It will be especially helpful for agencies with new Representatives.

We’re telling Congress we can get CSBG reauthorization done in 2015, but I know that we aren’t ready yet. We need to develop deeper relationships with Members, better measure our performance, more effectively articulate our success and build a strong community coalition. I want our fight for Community Action to be viewed historically as an effective bipartisan coalition. Next year is going to be a huge one for us. We are going to work hard and so is Congress. There are people around this town who don’t believe we can do it, but I know we can. Let’s get ready.

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.