When Government Works

Bipartisanship is a rare thing these days. Examples are everywhere. A government shutdown ensued when Democrats and Republicans were unable – or unwilling – to find an agreeable way to fund the government. There is fiery rhetoric from both sides, from Ted Cruz’s marathon filibuster to Alan Grayson’s rather infamous likening of tea party activists to the KKK. But without much fanfare, there is a small group of legislators passing good legislation with broad support across the political spectrum. The leader in this is Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Gillibrand recently took one of America’s most pressing and least addressed problems head on: infrastructure. She forged a coalition to pass the Building and Renewing Infrastructure for Development and Growth in Employment Act, or BRIDGE. The name is a mouthful, but the substance of the law is worthy of praise. It establishes an independent organization to put money toward infrastructure projects. Sponsors of the bill included Democrats Mark Warner, Roy Blunt, Gillibrand, Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar, and Claire McCaskill. They were joined by Republicans Lindsey Graham, Dean Heller, Mark Kirk, and Roger Wicker. Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, was particularly pleased with a provision ensuring that rural states received funding. “I am particularly pleased that the legislation sets aside dedicated funding to rural states, such as Mississippi,” Wicker said. “Attracting private investment in infrastructure is oftentimes too cumbersome and complex for many small towns and counties. This bill would address that problem by streamlining the process and providing much-needed assistance for these rural communities to get the funds they sorely need,” Wicker said in support of the bill.

A statement from Gillibrand’s office said that the law helps to address the nation’s alarming investment shortfall in maintaining and improving our transportation network, water and wastewater systems and energy infrastructure. The legislation would provide an additional financing tool for states and localities which can create new jobs here at home while also increasing our nation’s economic competitiveness.

The group of supporters covers the entire political spectrum and would address several issues with infrastructure spending. Firstly, by having an independent organization control the finances it would cut down on the rather corrupt practice of senators and congressmen inserting funding for their district – and often to their donors – into legislation. This bill will do much to prevent another “bridge to nowhere”. As Wicker mentioned, the bill contains language specifying that considerable money goes to rural states. This is a rarely reported on but very serious problem. Large cities and metro areas are often home to powerful corporations and unions which can use their considerable sway over politicians to bring public works projects to their cities. This bill, if properly implemented, could bring better infrastructure and new jobs to areas of the country hit hard by the recession.

The BRIDGE law is not the only piece of bipartisan legislation championed by Gillibrand. She had long sought to bring attention to the recurring problem of sexual assault in the military. This is, sadly, a daunting issue in our armed forces, and the method of dealing with it currently in place is ineffective. For many years, sexual misconduct was reported by the victim to their superiors, who would then be responsible for taking action. It’s easy to see the flaws in this system; it is very possible that the commander involved could be close to the victim or the accused person. This unfortunate situation makes it difficult to reach a sound judgment. It is heartbreaking that many of our bravest young people have to deal with abuse while serving the country. Many said that a solution couldn’t be found and that there was little enthusiasm for the bill. But Gillibrand kept fighting. The fight was joined by Democrats Claire McCaskill and Carl Levin. Soon the bill gained widespread Republican support from Susan Collins, Chuck Grassley, and Lisa Murkowski. More recently, a pair of tea party backed conservatives, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, became two of the bill’s strongest supporters. Gillibrand said she expects a vote to occur in January, and judging by the broad bipartisan support she has received, it seems to stand a strong chance of passing.

All this seems to prove that bipartisanship isn’t impossible. Gillibrand is the leader of a quiet revolution to make government work. It’s a change that’s occurring all across the country and supported by politicians of all ideologies and parties. This rejuvenation may be taking hold; a bipartisan budget bill was recently passed in the house. Neither side was fully satisfied, but both agreed it was a good start.


Is Michigan on the Rise?

As stated previously on this blog, the states are where innovation is. California has been getting much attention for this. Although the new California Renaissance is not as bright as it seems, the state is heading in a better direction, and Jerry Brown’s unlikely popularity reflects that. In New Jersey, Chris Christie has led a turnaround that has lifted him to political stardom and possibly to the Republican nomination. And in Ohio, John Kasich’s recent turnaround is gaining more and more attention.

But there’s another turnaround that few are talking about, and it’s going on in what Ohioans call “That State Up North”. Yes, I’m talking about Michigan. 

It may seem strange at first because the biggest political story out of Michigan has to do with Detroit, a city in such trouble that it was given an emergency manager by the state. Even he couldn’t prevent a bankruptcy. But outside of the blighted city of Detroit there’s a remarkable thing happening. The current Governor, Rick Snyder, isn’t a well known figure. Perhaps this is because he doesn’t give charismatic or memorable speeches, like Brown, Kasich, or Christie does. In fact, he describes himself as a nerd. But his work in Michigan is, upon closer inspection, the least reported comeback story in America.

Born in Battle Creek, Michigan, Snyder grew up in a 900 square foot house, a fact he has mentioned while campaigning. He was one of the founder of the Gateway computer company and has helped with the formation of a handful of lesser known businesses. Despite having no experience in politics, Snyder ran for Governor in 2010 against Lansing Mayor Virg Bernaro. He claimed in a clever advertising campaign that he was “one tough nerd.” In a year of Republican successes, Snyder won the election comfortably.

The statistics show that Snyder, a fairly moderate and pragmatic conservative, has accomplished a long list of things in his first term. The state’s budget deficit is gone and there is money flowing into the bank from the state for the first time in nearly a decade. And this was done not through tax increases – Snyder even eliminated the Michigan Business Tax altogether. Once ranked 49th in the country for business climate by the Tax Foundation, Michigan has climbed to 7th. Snyder also signed right to work legislation. On that, the jury remains out. It triggered massive protests, and could hurt his reelection chances. That said, right to work laws have worked elsewhere.

Snyder touts Michigan as “the comeback state”. There is certainly truth to this. The gains are also not limited to the economy. The new Healthy Michigan program addressed the gaping hole in the president’s healthcare plan – wellness. It’s proved to be one of the better programs in the nation. There have been education reforms as well: a program allowing high school students to take more college classes has lowered higher education costs.

It hasn’t been all positive though. The glaring exception to this comeback is the city of Detroit, which declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Snyder appointed Kevyn Orr to run the city under the state’s rather infamous emergency manager law. Detroit is a mess by any measurement. For example, it takes police a little under an hour on average to respond to calls. As a friend of mine pointed out after visiting Detroit, Pizza Hut is faster than the Detroit Police. Large portions of the city are abandoned. Crime and drug use are out of control. Snyder’s legacy, if he’s reelected, largely hinges on what happens with Detroit. Although that isn’t entirely fair to Snyder or to local leaders in Detroit, it’s the political reality. The Detroit story has a much higher profile than the positive development in places like Ann Arbor, Traverse City, and Grand Rapids. If signs of a turnaround start to appear in Detroit, Snyder may begin to take a higher profile and maybe even make a run for the presidency. If he does, America will ponder the question: is it time for a nerd? Michigan, it seems, needed one.