Amidst the hustle and bustle of their legislative schedules, local representatives in the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives took some time last Thursday to sit down with Gazette-Journal reporters in their Washington, D.C., offices to take a look at some of the issues that are not only hotly contested in the nation’s capital, but are also close to the hearts and minds of many at home.
Sens. Mark Warner and Jim Webb and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Montross) touched on important issues such as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and how it may impact our coastline, small business and incentives offered to keep that lifeline of the American economy steady and strong, transportation headaches in and around Hampton Roads, immigration reform, health care, and the Tea Party movement and its impact on the political atmosphere.
Gulf oil spill
Sens. Warner and Webb and Rep. Wittman all have supported allowing exploration of the oil lease area off coastal Virginia, but they also support President Barack Obama’s moratorium on the project, pending the outcome of the investigation of the BP disaster.
"Let’s take a time-out," said Warner. "I couldn’t support it until we figure out what happened and why it went wrong."
"Any time an issue is that emotional and it’s not getting resolved," said Webb, "you need to get the facts before you decide where to go with policy."
While BP CEO Tony Hayward was testifying at a congressional hearing just minutes from his office, Wittman agreed that he wants to "learn exactly what happened in the gulf" before proceeding.
Warner said he believes that President Obama could have put more resources in the region earlier, but he said a lot of people are acting like Monday-morning quarterbacks and they need to stop blaming both President Obama and President Bush.
"Let’s not mess with blame," he said. "Let’s stop the leak, make sure Americans are not responsible for the cost, take care of the people hurt by this, and make sure we have a worst-case plan if the oil comes up the East Coast."
Wittman said that the government should learn from the mistakes made in the gulf when going forward with other opportunities in offshore oil development.
Webb agreed, likening the oil spill to the recent coal mine disaster. He said that when safety citations were made against the West Virginia coal mine where a number of men were killed, the company filed a protest and was able to continue operating without addressing the problems. This constituted a failure of business practices and a lack of oversight by the government into things that can be fixed. Once a fix is made, he said, "we can proceed forward and still do offshore oil."
If it turns out the oil spill was a failure of technology and that the technology doesn’t exist to do offshore drilling safely, he said, "we need to stop."
Webb and Warner joined on a letter with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asking that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) determine what precautions need to be taken by coastal states to guard against damage on the remote chance that oil from the existing spill actually travels up the East Coast and ends up along the shoreline. Webb said that examining the problem shouldn’t take a lot of resources or cost a lot of money.
"It’s more a leadership issue than a money issue," he said. "You just get somebody to make a decision."
Both senators favor an "all the above" approach to solving the country’s energy needs, but they recognize the challenge.
Part of the problem with alternative energy, said Warner, is that "we didn’t do much in the last 10 years" to promote it. There was money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for electric cars, smart power grids, and other energy projects, but a comprehensive plan is needed to help turn the research into actual products.
Webb said that the reality for small businesses today is that so many of them have been "Walmartized." Small businesses can’t compete economically with large corporations, so the government needs to create incentives, he said. Some incentives have been included in the health care bill, which Webb said he voted against 17 times before the final version, in an effort to strengthen the bill and provide adequate protection for small businesses.
Webb said that a major priority in his office is obtaining broadband funding for rural Virginia communities, which will help support small business. When asked why grants for broadband have gone to other parts of the state but none has come to the Middle Peninsula, he said that the Northern Neck had recently received a $6 million grant for broadband development.
However, that comment was contradicted by a statement made by Wittman, who said he was disappointed because the second round of broadband funding requested by the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck had been turned down.
Wittman hosted a broadband roundtable discussion on the matter last winter, when the localities had applied for the latest round of funding. He anticipates another broadband roundtable to be scheduled this summer to determine what the next step is. He said he plans to invite partners in the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative, Verizon and local leaders to attend.
Mathews County Administrator Steve Whiteway confirmed that the Northern Neck had not received any stimulus funding. Webb’s communications director, Jessica Smith, could not be reached for comment.
Warner said that he’s frustrated with the administration’s slow progress on helping to provide broadband access to rural areas, but he was more enthusiastic about his proposal to provide incentives for community banks to give credit to small business owners.
Even though the stock market is back from its low, said Warner, "it’s been awful hard for small businesses to get credit." Since 65 percent of the jobs created after a recession come from small business, Warner has proposed a $30 billion program to unfreeze credit that he says would require only about $2 billion in government funding.
Webb said that traffic is so bad in the District of Columbia that he had asked the Capitol Police to look at enforcement of such violations as double parking and parking during restricted periods. But because he had to leave to give a speech, Webb couldn’t continue the discussion and asked Smith to answer further questions.
Smith said that Webb is a strong proponent of mass transit and investing in infrastructure. During debates on the issue, she said, he has stressed the need to invest in building roads and major arteries, and increasing mass transit, particularly high speed rail. Not only would such projects create infrastructure to relieve traffic congestion, but they would also put people back to work, as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps did in the Great Depression.
"In the initial stages of the economic recovery debate, he wrote a number of letters to the administration saying the first priority is infrastructure," Smith said. "He understands (the transportation concerns) fully, knowing our headaches in Northern Virginia."
One of the reasons localities are unable to obtain funding for projects, said Smith, is that they fail to put a plan in writing so that it’s ready to go when the money is made available.
"It’s a group effort," she said. "We can recognize traffic problems around the state, but we rely heavily on the community to come to us. It’s sort of a two-way street."
Warner said that there’s no money at either the state or federal level for transportation. The number of vehicles has dramatically increased, he said, but as fuel efficiency increases, gas taxes decrease. All the money is being used just to maintain roads, with no funds for new construction, he said.
"We got creamed on roads by the governor, the anti-taxers, and the environmentalists," he said.
Wittman offered a number of ideas for solving transportation problems. He said one of the major things he is proposing is to put more money into the transportation trust fund and make sure Virginia receives a higher rate of return on that money.
He also said the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) is up for re-authorization in the next couple of years. This program, he said, will authorize funding for highway projects for a six-year period.
"I look forward to working to secure additional federal funding for projects in the commonwealth as part of the state’s six-year transportation plan," he said.
Wittman is not in favor of a fuel tax, which he agreed with Warner is a decreasing source of revenue; rather, he posed the question about alternative fuel vehicle owners and the need to ensure that drivers fairly pay for road use. "It has to be some kind of user-based fuel structure," he said.
Wittman said land use and transportation planning must go hand in hand, adding, "We have to look at rails and mass transportation."
Both Warner and Smith (speaking for Webb) said that calls from constituents about health care had dramatically decreased after the bill was passed. Smith said that, in spite of the anti-government sentiment generated by the issue, Webb had never been personally targeted or threatened during the debate. However, other Congressional members did receive threats, and some of them made the decision to vote for it with the knowledge that it would probably mean losing their seat in Congress.
The good thing, said Smith, is that the bill can still be amended and problems can be fixed.
Health care is the biggest driver of the nation’s deficit, said Warner, and "if we hadn’t done anything, costs would’ve gone up. We were on a path to destruction."
But the health care bill is neither as good nor as bad as the people on opposite sides of the issue have claimed, he said, and the real difference it makes on people’s lives will be seen as it’s implemented. The issue is getting it implemented in a way that saves money.
"We expanded coverage but didn’t go far enough in cost containment," he said. "It needs major tweaks."
Smith said that Webb had proposed an amendment to an immigration bill that would allow some illegal immigrants to become citizens. The process would be triggered for immigrants who have lived in the community for a certain number of years, have a grasp of the English language, and have formed ties to the community in terms of a job and, perhaps, homeownership.
"There are a number of people who have been here and have become central to the economy," she said. "They have children who are citizens and they’re giving back to the community."
Warner said that immigration needs to be tackled comprehensively, much in the way of the health care bill. However, he said he’s not on any committees dealing with immigration and there’s no pending legislation on the issue.
Tea Party movement
Finally, the legislators were asked about the Tea Party movement and its possible impact on the next election.
Warner said he’s used to people yelling at him from both sides, and it’s fine for people to express their views, but he wants them to do it respectfully. He said the Tea Party has "a legitimate beef about too much spending," and he’s trying to get 17 duplicated federal programs eliminated for a cost-savings of $800 million. The problem, he said, is that "everybody wants to cut programs until you cut them."
Smith said that Webb appreciates the thoughts and opinions of everyone who corresponds with his office and that a number of comments from Tea Party members have been instructive in letting him know how some Americans feel.
"It’s evident that a number of people are frustrated because of the economic environment, and being critical of the government is not uncommon," she said. "A lot of people are anxious about their jobs … A number of people are looking for answers."
There has been a heightened level of aggression and hostility "that is not commonplace," she said, but Webb hasn’t felt personally threatened.
"Senator Webb is a very independent member of Congress," she said. "He listens to all viewpoints and at the end listens to his conscience, then votes. He uses a prism of fairness to derive his decisions, asking ‘Is this going to be fair to the average Virginian? Is it giving a voice to everybody who needs one?’ I don’t think you can put Senator Webb into a box. He surprises us regularly."
Wittman described the Tea Party’s efforts as "very significant" and said they have raised awareness and brought about an overall engagement of the electorate. "Probably, this election cycle will be as energized as any time in American history," he said.
Visiting the Middle Peninsula
Wittman has become a familiar face in the district, and Warner has visited Mathews County on at least two occasions, but Webb has yet to make a trip to the area. When Smith was asked if her boss planned to visit anytime soon, she said she would mention it to him.
Warner, when asked the same question, said he plans on visiting the Eastern Shore and Southside sometime during the week of July 5 and he hopes to stop someplace on the Middle Peninsula on his way home. While he was aware of local festivals and other events when he was governor of Virginia, said Warner, he finds it harder to keep up with such occasions now. He indicated he would be amenable to an invitation if one were extended.