The State of a Better Union

Last night, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union address – my first as a U.S. Congressman. You’ve heard a lot of instant reactions from the Beltway and beyond about the President’s message, but it’s my hope we can take a step back from the minutia and develop a better sense of recent history.

Let’s remember where we were when the President delivered his inaugural address last year. When the President took office, America had just endured the worst year for job loss since 1945. In the last three months of 2008, our country was hemorrhaging an average of 673,000 jobs per month. By the last three months of 2009, that number was reduced to 69,333, a 90% improvement. To be sure, the state of our union needs to be much stronger, but because of the efforts of President Obama and Democrats in Congress, we’ve endured the worst of the Bush recession and we’re creating an economy that once again creates jobs for the middle and working classes.

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The central piece of legislation responsible for our recovery is without question the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). To date, the ARRA stimulus package has infused $154.9 billion into the American economy, saving or creating 640,000 jobs, including 110,000 in California. In the last quarter of 2009, ARRA had added between 1.5 and 3% in real GDP growth to our struggling economy.

In my home state of California, ARRA has brought more than $63 billion in investments and tax incentives to California with billions more on the way, including $9.7 billion for education, $7.9 billion for health and human services, and $5 billion for transportation. Indeed, we are in the midst of the most significant infrastructure revitalization since the 1950s.

There is no better example than the Caldecott Tunnel expansion in my district. It is the single largest ARRA transportation grant in the nation, a $197.5 million allotment that will create 6,000 to 7,000 jobs while easing congestion for travelers between Alameda and Contra Costa counties. With state funds drying up because of systematic budget failures, Bay Area residents have ARRA to thank for this important project.

ARRA was Congress’s most important economic accomplishment last year, but it did not stand alone. Let us not forget, 2009 was the year CHIP health care was expanded to four million low-income children. And for students torn between a college education and looming debt in this economy, Congressman George Miller’s College Cost Reduction and Access Act revolutionized student aid in America, increasing Pell Grant availability by $600 per semester, and substantially lowering future interest rates and monthly payments.

Considering where we started, we’ve made incredible progress in America. But I recognize that we still have a long way to go to get our nation back on track. Unemployment rates are at an unacceptably high level. In my state of California, unemployment hovered at 12.4% last month. We still have a lot of work to do to get people back to work.

In December, the House passed two bills that deserve immediate attention from the Senate. The Jobs for Main Street Act is in many ways a second ARRA, delivering an additional $35 billion for roads and public transit and $20 billion for education, saving or creating 25,000 jobs in education alone. It would recruit 25,000 new young people into AmeriCorps and create work study and summer job employment opportunities for 500,000 young workers struggling to find employment in this tough economy while also extending unemployment insurance. The House also passed the Wall Street Reform and Accountability Act, legislation that would help stop predatory behavior on Wall Street while providing relief for homeowners, renters, and small business owners. If signed into law, these bills will surely strengthen the state of the union in the years to come. But as we move forward in the fight for job creation and accountability in the financial sector, we still must finish what we started.

I joined Congress with a pledge to fight for comprehensive health care reform, and I plan on finishing the job. Indeed, health reform isn’t just about quality and affordable care; it will also help strengthen our economy if done right. We know that health care costs make up 17% of our economy. If we let the status quo continue, that number will rise to 37% by 2037. And what are we getting for this expense? According to the World Health Organization, the U.S. ranks at the bottom of 19 industrialized nations in the number of preventable deaths from common illnesses.

If we pass health care reform now, three things will almost immediately happen: patients will not be denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions; adult aged children will be given access to their parents insurance until the age of 27; and health care will be portable if you lose or change your job.

I will continue to work with my colleagues to fight hard for the things I care about in health care reform, including a robust public option and generous affordability protections for seniors and the middle class. And let me be clear, I’m not the least bit concerned about using majority rule in the Senate to pass meaningful health care reform. Congress has employed reconciliation in the past to make major policy shifts, including the passage of welfare reform and the Bush tax cuts, and the fact of the matter is this country will find itself in serious trouble if we do not act now. No one Senator should feel entitled to veto power over 17% percent of our economy.

So as we reflect on last night’s State of the Union address, let’s remember how far we’ve come after only one year into President Obama’s term and also remember how far we still must go.

Congressman John Garamendi (D-Walnut Creek) represents California's 10th Congressional District. He previously served as a Deputy Interior Secretary under President Bill Clinton and was California's Lieutenant Governor and Insurance Commissioner.

Tags: John Garamendi, Barack Obama, CA-10, Wall Street, healthcare reform, Public Option, arra, Recommended (all tags)

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