Bashing Congress for its inability to get things done has been an American pastime for the 236 years as a nation we just marked on Independence Day.
Now, in my fourth year as one of Alaska’s U.S. senators, I share Americans’ frustrations with Washington, D.C., being out of touch and seemingly unable to address our country’s enormous problems.
So it comes as a pleasant and little noticed surprise the U.S. Senate in recent months actually has passed significant legislation which — if the House will only vote on several backed-up bills — will create millions of American jobs, including for Alaskans.
The most important is reauthorization of funding for America’s transportation facilities — highways, bridges, ports and ferries. In March, the Senate on a 74-22 bipartisan vote, agreed to invest $109 billion into the nation’s deteriorating transportation network, supporting 2.9 million jobs.
The measure is especially important for Alaska by paying for $1 billion worth of projects over the next two years, which will create or protect nearly 19,000 Alaska jobs. I was pleased to ensure key provisions for Alaska were included, such as nearly $50 million annually for rural roads, Denali Commission reforms, $67 million for ferries and van-pooling incentives. Our congressional delegation, led by Congressman Don Young, worked hard to protect $31 million for the Alaska Railroad, which some misguided senators had proposed eliminating.
After refusing to act for four months, the U.S. House finally passed the transportation bill in late June, sending it to the president for final approval.
Fortunately for college students across the nation, the House also agreed to the Senate-passed extension of affordable student loans. With the interest rate scheduled to double on July 1, final congressional action means loan rates will remain at 3.4 percent.
As the former chair of the Alaska Student Loan Corporation, I worked hard to prevent the rate jump, which would have cost thousands of students in Alaska and across the country an additional $1,000.
Another significant jobs measure is the Farm Bill, which supports 2.9 million jobs while cutting many bloated farm subsidies. For Alaskans, the fully paid for bill protects essential rural water and wastewater projects, expands disaster loans to shellfish and finfish harvesters and ensures that 91,000 Alaskans who rely on federal nutrition assistance remain healthy.
In April, Senate Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly passed comprehensive reform of the Post Office, which is losing billions of dollars. I fought hard to prevent the closure of 31 Alaska post offices and against an effort by Arizona Sen. John McCain to eliminate our Bypass Mail Program, which preserves the critical link to rural Alaska. Our bill puts the Post Office on solid financing footing.
Yet another significant bill passed by the Senate this spring was the Violence Against Women Act. This landmark legislation funds efforts by communities and local law enforcement to prevent domestic violence. Shamefully, Alaska leads the nation in rates of domestic violence and child abuse. That’s why I fought to ensure Alaska tribes retain their authority to deal with domestic violence. I also have introduced separate legislation to create demonstration projects in nine Alaska villages to give rural communities more tools to fight alcohol, drug and domestic violence cases.
Despite the enormous jobs-creating and other beneficial provisions, the Farm Bill, Post Office Reform and Violence Against Women measures remain bottled up in the House. We senators have been able to find bipartisan compromises to address some of the nation’s problems, so I’m hopeful House members will deliver for their constituents.
In coming weeks, the Senate will be focused on growing the economy. First up is a measure to provide incentives for small businesses to add jobs. Economists say our proposal — a 10 percent income tax credit on new payroll — will help small businesses add new workers.
We also want to crack down on companies out-sourcing jobs abroad. Our Bring Jobs Home Act provides companies a 20 percent tax credit for costs associated with returning jobs to America and eliminating tax loopholes for those who ship jobs overseas.
Congress must work across party lines to get America’s economy moving again.
• Begich, of Anchorage, is a U.S. Senator representing Alaska in Washington, D.C.