Congressman Mike Michaud — Working with a New Democratic Congress
by Ramona du Houx
The first week in the United States Congress with Democrats in control of House and Senate, the difference was incredible for Congressman Mike Michaud. Legislation that helped the wellbeing of the American people passed, and business was conducted, "In the light of day," smiled the congressman.
Before the 2007 elections, Congressman Michaud had only experienced a time when the Republicans held the power in Congress and in the executive branch. In order to rush through legislation they thought would be controversial, they would pass it in the middle of the night, when the TV cameras were off. They became used to ramrodding the democratic process by pushing forward an agenda that rewarded the ultra-rich and took advantage of everyone else. They regularly discarded the laws that govern the democratic body, because no oversight committees were appointed. In control, they thought they could do just about anything. But those were the days—
"I’m very pleased with the work we have been able to do in such a short timeframe. We passed ethics reform and rules, the minimum wage increase [from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour over two years], a bill that allows us to negotiate for lower-priced prescription drugs, stem cell research, and the commission’s 9-11 recommendations. And they were passed primarily with bipartisan support. We’ve hit the ground running," said Michaud.
The ethics reform and rules aim to ensure that Congress uphold the highest ethical standards. The ethics package begins to sever the connection between lobbyists and legislation, by banning travel and other gifts from lobbyists — ending the abuses connected to privately funded congressional travel. The rules package restores democracy in the House — committing to a fair and open process for amendments, an end to two-day workweeks, curbing abuses of voting, guaranteeing time to read legislation, and opening up conference committees so that the minority is able to participate.
"Putting in a full week’s work is far better than spending three days a week. Tuesdays are a special change for us. In the lame-duck Congress we spent a lot of our time on Tuesdays naming post offices. Getting legislation passed that helps the American people, accomplished in the light of day, is a big change. With it comes more predictability and accountability. Now we are given the bills three or four days before we vote on them. It’s how the system was designed to work. It’s great," said Michaud.
"In the last election cycle the Republicans lost a lot of seats, primarily due to the Iraq war. The American people are fed up with the deception from this administration. From seeing the president declaring ‘mission accomplished’, in a photo-op on one of our magnificent carriers, to just last October — a month before the election — saying they were winning the war. People are tired and are paying closer attention to what is happening. The Republicans took a shellacking in the last election. As a result, some are really concerned about their future and see that they need to change how they are voting. There’s a change of atmosphere in Washington. Finally, Republicans are questioning what their administration is doing," said the congressman.
"When you look at the 9-11 commission’s recommendations, we had 16 Republicans voting for the proposal; before the election we couldn’t even get a single Republican vote.
"The last election showed that the American people want to change the direction in Washington. The president doesn’t plan on changing direction. He believes in ‘staying the course’. He’s saying it’s a new direction, but frankly it’s not. Now you’ll see Congress debating the war in Iraq in open and honest discussion. I will be, once again, cosponsoring the resolution for the withdrawal of the troops in Iraq. We’ll have hearings on the legislation, and we will move forward."
Michaud will resubmit amended legislation that he proposed under a Republican Congress, as well new legislation for many different issues. The level of success that the congressman achieved with Republicans in charge even amazes Republicans and drew praise from Maine’s senators.
His homeless bill for Veterans passed in the lame-duck session, as well as his health care clinic for Veterans, which provides access locally in rural areas for Veterans. He won approval for the East-West Highway, his Northeast Regional Economic Development Commission took strides forward, and amongst other measures he secured major federal funding for research and development.
"Ensuring that the Department of Veterans Affairs has the authority and resources to provide veterans with the medical care and benefits that they have earned is a mission that will continue in the next Congress," said Michaud.
Last summer, Michaud introduced the Homeless Veterans Assistance Act of 2006, comprehensive legislation to improve the VA’s capacity to help homeless veterans recover, rehabilitate, and return to a fuller life in society.
"Extending the authorization for these programs until the end of 2007 is an important first step, but is it not enough. In our great nation, it is unacceptable that even one veteran should be homeless and hungry. I plan to reintroduce my bill in the next Congress to help homeless veterans. We must keep the faith that we can end homelessness among veterans," said Michaud.
"During the lame-duck session, I was able to put forward legislation that required Secretary of Veterans Affairs to put a business plan together for enhanced access to outpatient care, for primary care, mental health care, and specialty care in the areas of Lewiston-Auburn, Houlton, and Dover-Foxcroft. Veterans in Maine often drive hours to receive the care that they have earned and deserve. It is important to extend the VA’s presence in the community, to ensure that veterans have easy access to the high quality health-care services they need. This bill takes a major step forward in that direction."
At one point the administration started to prioritize veterans in numerical categories. So depending on at what number they classified a veteran, that number became the veteran’s priority and part of his or her identity. "My feeling is when you sign up to join the military, you didn’t sign up to be in any special category. You signed up to serve your country, and when you take off the uniform you become a veteran, to be honored and taken care of by the country you served, equally."
Michaud spoke of his duty of attending funerals for those who have sacrificed their lives for the nation. "I’ve gone to too many of these," he said as he felt the pain of the families. Though he doesn’t have to, he calls every family in Maine that has lost someone in Iraq, and he attends the services. "It’s one of the hardest things I do.
"PTDS and traumatic brain injuries are wounds of war that we don’t visually see, but they have a major effect on not only the veteran but also their families," said Michaud, who heard from a number of constituents that funding wasn’t reaching their health-care facilities for PTDS and other related health-care issues. Michaud researched the problem. The results of the study show that the federal government had no accountability for where the money that was allocated to the VA for mental health ended up going. It was gone. "This all happened under the previous Congresses, where there were no oversight hearings, no accountability. Things have changed."
With that change came long-awaited, fought-for funding.
As a result of Michaud’s hard work, a substantial boost in funding for veterans’ health care was just approved in February. The resolution contains $32.3 billion for veterans’ health care, an increase of $3.6 billion over Fiscal Year 2006 levels.
"I am very pleased that congressional leaders listened to the pleas of our committee and increased veterans’ health-care funding," said Michaud. "Past funding shortfalls have had a real impact on the health care that veterans received. This funding measure is a positive step forward in addressing the needs of our veterans."
"As we celebrate finally getting adequate VA funding in place for this year, we will now turn our attention to the administration’s budget request for the coming fiscal year. It remains to be seen whether the president’s budget request will be enough to provide timely, quality health care to veterans and to streamline the process so that veterans will not face backlogs and gridlock when they attempt to collect their benefits."
The Congressman’s work was recognized, and in February he was unanimously elected to serve as chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Health in the 110th Congress. Michaud works tirelessly for all the people of Maine and has a special focus on Veterans.
"I am honored and excited to serve as chairman of the Health Subcommittee," said Congressman Michaud. "I look forward to continuing to work with veterans in Maine and across the country, the VA, and my colleagues in Congress to fulfill our promise to our veterans and their families."
Over the past two budgets, Michaud secured $3.8 million in funding from the federal government, earmarked by Congress to support the Maine Institute for Human Genetics and Health (MIHGH).
MIHGH is a partnership started two years ago between EMHS, the University of Maine at Orono, and Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, with the state assisting. The partnership is attracting internationally ranked scientists, research grants, students and faculty to Maine.
The partnership is one of many expected to form in the next decade. The vision is to have this scientific medical cluster grow and become a center for research in the state, recognized throughout the world.
The project includes a $42 million Cancer Care facility, on three floors, that will replace the current cancer treatment center at EMMC in Bangor, and the genetics lab on the fourth floor. "It’s great for not only the economy in the area but also because of the research being conducted there. Their cancer research could save people’s lives and save on the cost of health care. This is a project that’s very important for the region, the country, and the world," said Michaud.
The congressman also secured $12 million over various budgets for the U.S. Army Center of Excellence project in Orono, to continue research on advanced structures and composites for force protection. This funding would develop new construction techniques for bomb-resistant temporary living quarters for troops in the field.
"This funding is a testament to all the great work that the University of Maine is doing to help create materials that use the natural resources of our state and that benefit our troops," said Michaud.
Congressman Michaud jokes with workers at the Madison paper mill on a recent visit. The congressman followed a family tradition and worked at the Great Northern Paper mill.
In a recent hearing on the state of economic development in America, economic development experts delivered congressional testimony praising Congressman Mike Michaud’s proposed legislation to create a Northeast Regional Economic Development Commission. They were in full support of having the federal government pursue a more regionally based approach to development, as Congressman Michaud has advocated.
"The committee should further explore various proposals to create new regional development authorities ... for example, Representative Michaud has proposed the creation of the Northeast Regional Economic Development Commission," testified Erik Pages, president of EntreWorks Consulting.
The Northeast Regional Economic Development Commission is modeled after the successful Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC). ARC has reduced the number of distressed counties in its region from 219 to 100 since 1965. It has cut the poverty rate from 31 percent to 15 percent, and helped 1,400 businesses create 26,000 new jobs in the region.
"When I arrived in Congress, it became clear that other regions were catching onto a good idea, but that Maine and the whole Northeast could be missing the boat," said Michaud. "There is currently no single body focused on the need for jobs and economic development in the Northeast region. Creating a regional commission would give us the chance to look at economic development in a whole new way: as a challenge that we can tackle together as a region."
"Trade issues were important in the last election. We have a new freshman class that has been very vocal on trade deals. Right after the election, Robert Rubin, who worked for President Clinton on getting NAFTA passed, came to talk to us. The freshman Democrats hammered him, which he didn’t expect. So I’m hopeful and pleased the freshman Democrats will participate in upcoming discussions on trade. I’ve been working with the United States Business and Industry Council on trade issues. Concerned businesses and citizens are worried.
"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose board of directors has CEOs of companies overseas, tries to make Democrats feel they should support all trade deals because if they don’t it’s bad for business. Well, it’s bad for business if we do. When countries pay their workers a dollar a day, there’s no way we can compete. Democrats have to wake up and see that they are not helping businesses by promoting free trade, and that they are hurting the security of this country. Free trade is not fair trade."