January 4, 2016
2015 was an eventful year, filled with challenges and opportunities. It was almost impossible to work cooperatively in such a hyper-partisan atmosphere. The influence of the Tea Party was felt by both major parties — and not in a productive way. The House was able to complete work on a few important matters once former-Speaker John Boehner announced his resignation. His pledge to “clean the barn out” for his successor proved both accurate and helpful as the year came to an end. However, even on those few important matters — by any measure — the best we could do was maintain the status quo.
As I look forward to 2016 and continuing to work on your behalf, I’d like to reflect on some of the activities of the past year. I wish you all the best in the New Year.
Transportation Green Line Extension
Much of my efforts this year focused on transportation. The Green Line Extension (GLX) captured quite a few headlines, not all of them good. 2015 began with the announcement that the federal government would contribute close to $1 billion toward construction of the GLX. My work on this project began long before taking office as a Representative in Congress. It has been a priority since I was Mayor of Somerville. Persuading the federal government to partially fund the GLX was crucial because the state could not take on such an expensive project alone. The New Starts award was the culmination of years of hard work and it was very welcome news — particularly in light of the current climate in Washington. $150 million for the GLX was included in the omnibus appropriations bill that passed last month, representing the first payment of New Starts money.
More recently, Massachusetts transportation officials announced that their original budget for this project was inadequate and much more money would be needed for the GLX. State transportation officials are exploring ways to bring down the cost, including making changes to the project.
Walking away from the GLX is simply not an option. This project is a legal obligation resulting from the Big Dig and has already been affirmed by the court. Furthermore, the $1 billion in federal funds committed to this project will go to another state if the GLX is not built. Those funds come from the Federal Transit Administration’s New Starts program. Legally, Massachusetts cannot use the money for anything other than the GLX. The state simply cannot leave $1 billion in federal transportation money on the table.
I must have confidence that the state will not walk away from this large amount of federal funding that was so hard to come by. The project may take longer and the stations may not be as fancy, but I strongly believe the GLX will be built. I stand ready to continue offering any assistance I can and will keep pushing as hard as I can for transportation equity. We all look forward to hearing more from the state in the weeks and months ahead.
In December President Obama signed legislation authorizing $305 billion for surface transportation programs over five years. This funding will support vital investments in highways, transit, Amtrak, and intercity passenger rail across the country. Of that amount, Massachusetts is expected to receive more than $5 billion, an increase of more than $447 million or 9.7% over current funding levels. As the only New England member on the conference committee negotiating the differences between the House and Senate versions of the transportation bill, my primary focus was on protecting the interests of Massachusetts and the larger region. I think that was accomplished, resulting in much needed transportation revenue for the Commonwealth.
This summer the Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration published the final rule for National Tunnel Inspection Standards (NTIS). I have filed legislation numerous times since 2007 to establish a nationwide highway tunnel inspection program modeled after the existing bridge inspection program. I took action after a falling ceiling panel in a Big Dig tunnel claimed the life of a young woman. At the time, there were no national standards or requirements for inspecting highway tunnels. Tunnel inspections became federal law as part of a previous transportation authorization and the DOT has been working on its implementation. The publication of this final rule represented the last step in my years-long effort to implement this program.
Federal Housing Administration
During my time in Congress I have worked on many fronts to make housing more affordable for moderate income families. My efforts have focused on renters and well as homeowners. In early 2015 the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) reduced the mortgage insurance premium, making homeownership more affordable for those seeking to enter the housing market. These premiums were steadily increasing and I have long advocated a return to more affordable levels which will help make this program more accessible to moderate-income families. Because that premium was steadily increasing, it was putting FHA mortgages out of reach for many otherwise qualified home buyers. This sensible reduction to the upfront mortgage insurance premium will better accommodate the homebuyers it is designed to serve.
Terrorism Risk Insurance Program
In early 2015 Congress extended the Terrorism Risk Insurance Program (TRIA) for six years, increasing the amount of losses that would make insurance companies eligible to access TRIA from $100 million to $200 million over five years. TRIA was passed in the aftermath of 9/11 after terrorism insurance suddenly became unaffordable and limited. Its high cost impacted activity in many industries, affecting workers compensation coverage and halting new construction. TRIA created a federal backstop to help make terrorism insurance available and affordable again. I have introduced legislation on TRIA starting in 2004. This year marks the third time the program was extended.
The 7th Congressional District is home to dozens of colleges and universities, from the Ivy League to community colleges. That is why I was so concerned when the Obama Administration announced it was fashioning a college ratings system to determine the best schools according to the federal government. Some of the proposed criteria seemed unfair, such as assessing the salaries of graduates. In response to the Administration’s announcement, I filed a resolution with Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) opposing the establishment of a college ratings system. We were pleased when in June the Administration announced that instead of establishing a ratings system, the Department of Education would develop consumer tools students and parents can use to assess institutions of higher learning.
In October I attended a special ceremony awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the “Monuments Men”. These brave men and women served during World War II protecting some of the world’s greatest treasures. They struggled, often behind enemy lines, to locate and preserve precious artifacts that would have been lost forever without their efforts. All of these treasures help to tell the story of our history. As the lead Democratic sponsor of H.R. 3658, the Monuments Men Recognition Act, I was thrilled to participate in the ceremony granting this long overdue recognition to the men and women who served as the “Monuments Men” during World War II and to recognize the Monuments Men Foundation.
We had some success late in 2015 with efforts to tighten the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers – defined as 13(3) authority. During the financial crisis, the Federal Reserve broadly applied their existing authority to bail out some sectors of the economy, including entities the Fed does not regulate because they are not banks, such as AIG. This was notable at the time because technically the Federal Reserve does not have authority over these other entities. Dodd Frank placed some limits on the future use of 13(3) but still left a lot to the Federal Reserve’s discretion. We advocated for a series of changes as the Federal Reserve finalized new rules as required by Dodd Frank. One of them, an expansion of the definition of “broad based eligibility”, is now part of the final rule. Moving forward, the Federal Reserve won’t be able to apply these emergency lending powers unless at least five institutions are eligible for it. This eliminates the scenario where just one institution, such as AIG, benefits from the Federal Reserve’s emergency lending powers. Although I am pleased at this outcome, there is more work to do, such as increasing transparency. I will continue pushing my legislation requiring the Federal Reserve to reveal within 60 days all the entities being assisted through 13(3).
2015 was a busy year for constituent services and the cases we faced ranged from straightforward to complex. It sometimes takes much longer than we would like to achieve resolution on a case, and we don’t always get a satisfactory outcome, but we work hard every day to advocate on behalf of our constituents.
My office handles numerous passport and immigration issues every year. Some are simply requests for help when someone has lost their passport or did not realize it expired. Others require more time and attention. We help individuals who are working to become citizens or seeking to reunite with their families understand U.S. rules and the often discouragingly lengthy procedures that are required. We have partnered with our area hospitals on cases involving work authorizations and bringing families of the seriously ill together.
Staff in 2015 worked on Social Security cases, helped with veterans’ benefits and offered affordable housing guidance. Every day, we help constituents navigate federal agencies and work with them to move their cases forward.
Many of the challenges we faced in 2015 will remain on the agenda. I am staying in close contact with our state and federal partners on the GLX, and will continue working to advance this project. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has also been a focus of mine and I expect much interaction in 2016. We are regularly contacted by constituents in every corner of the district with concerns about airplane noise. I have spoken with many of you about this and participated in a lengthy community meeting in December. Reasonable people understand that Logan Airport isn’t going anywhere and some airplane noise is an unavoidable part of urban living. This doesn’t mean however, that some communities should be unfairly burdened by noise while others experience very little. I will continue working with my colleagues in Congress, as well as Massport and the FAA to spread the impact of Logan fairly.
At the end of September, then Speaker Boehner announced he would be stepping down and retiring from Congress. In October Paul Ryan was elected the new Speaker of the House. The agenda for the last few months of 2015 was focused on completing must-do legislation, such as the omnibus appropriations bill and transportation reauthorization. Speaker Ryan is free to set the tone and agenda for the House in 2016. I am not optimistic that much will be different under new leadership, but I am keeping an open mind.
In November I traveled to South Sudan and it saddened me to report that the world’s newest democracy is roiled in conflict and violence. I have not given up hope that peace and stability can be achieved. Since my return, I have met with officials from the White House, the State Department, the Embassy of South Sudan, and various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) involved in the region. As Co-Chair of the Congressional Caucus on Sudan and South Sudan, I will continue doing all I can to advance peace and democracy.
Terrorism at home and abroad has dominated our recent discourse and there are no easy answers on any level. Many of you have contacted me about this, sharing concerns, sympathies and ideas. Please know your input is always with me as Congress debates ways to combat terrorism, and I will continue balancing civil liberties with security concerns.
We’ve been writing this newsletter for almost ten years, starting with less than 100 readers and growing to almost 9,000. I appreciate your support and all the feedback you’ve provided over the years. I wish you a happy and healthy New Year and I look forward to seeing you in 2016.