U.S. Rep. Tom Allen speaks in Augusta, Maine Photo by Ramona du Houx April/May By Ramona du Houx The most dramatic change in Washington, DC since Democrats took power in Congress has been in attitude shifts, which have changed votes on the House floor, said U.S. Rep. Tom Allen. “What I’ve noticed is that the old Republican majority has lost […]
U.S. Rep. Tom Allen speaks in Augusta, Maine Photo by Ramona du Houx
By Ramona du Houx
The most dramatic change in Washington, DC since Democrats took power in Congress has been in attitude shifts, which have changed votes on the House floor, said U.S. Rep. Tom Allen.
“What I’ve noticed is that the old Republican majority has lost most of its arrogance. The election was a real blow for people who have been in charge for over 12 years. Now, there is a willingness to work across the aisle on things we care about,” said Congressman Allen. “Much of the legislation we did in the first 100 hours was supported by a fair amount of Republicans. Personal relationships on the floor seem much better to me than they were before. At the same time Democrats are so happy that we are getting legislature passed — we’re not interested in taking revenge.”
Allen embraces the new five-day workweek brought about by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though he misses being able to be with constituents in Maine to the degree he had when there was a three-day workweek. He relishes the chance to move America forward again.
“We want to get things done. We have the energy that has been building from an agenda that was stalled for a dozen years. Now we have a chance to work on improving access to health care, to improving education, to developing a more progressive approach to climate change, and at the top of the list — how we get out of Iraq.”
The war deeply distresses the congressman who has cosponsored bills that will bring troops home and make the president accountable. Allen never supported the invasion.
“Iraq is going to dominate the issues this year in Congress. It’s always there with us. After four years, we’ve learned that there is no military solution in Iraq and that the Sunni leadership and Shiite leadership have to work out their differences. They are not going to do that unless we give them a deadline of when we are leaving,” said Allen. “If we say we are leaving, you are on your own, that will be a powerful motivator for them to compromise their differences about the structure of the government, about the amount of regional autonomy, and about how to share the oil revenues. They have to come to agreement on those three things.”
Congressman Allen says the only responsible action for America to take at this stage in the war is to leave Iraq.
“We need to leave in the most responsible quickest way possible. It also puts intense pressure on Iran, as supporters of the Shiites, and the Saudis, as supporters of the Sunnis, to make sure the Middle East doesn’t blow up into a much larger conflict. And to do that, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have a very strong interest in having some sort of stability in Iraq. As long as we are there, the Shiite government wants us to go kill Sunnis. And the Sunni insurgents are determined to drive us out. We’re in a very bad place,” said Rep. Allen. “We almost can’t avoid being caught in this crossfire. We need to get out by the end of the year.”
Allen supports the Comprehensive Strategy for Iraq Act of 2007, introduced by U.S. Reps. David Price (D-NC) and Brad Miller (D-NC). HR 645 requires the president to submit a plan for phasing out troop deployments, with a timetable, by December 31, 2007. It declares that U.S. policy is to withdraw forces in order to transfer responsibility to Iraqis; prohibits funding for permanent U.S. bases in Iraq; authorizes funding for employment, democracy and governance programs in Iraq; and creates a Special Envoy for Iraq Regional Security. This legislation would terminate the authorization for operations in Iraq passed by Congress in 2002 on the grounds that the original mission that was authorized — eliminating weapons of mass destruction and ousting Saddam Hussein — is no longer operative.
“If we pass HR 645, I think neighboring countries will hold together and the Europeans and other potential donor counties will be willing to play a greater role than they are today. We ought to help in the ways we can, which include political support and economic aid, but not a military presence trying to prevent the Sunnis and Shiites from killing each other,” said Allen. “We’re not being successful. We’re only succeeding in breaking up our Army and Marine Corps in Iraq, and we have a lot of other challenges around the world. The war is straining our military, compromising our ability to address other vital national security priorities, like global terrorism and nuclear proliferation, and diverting attention away from troubling developments in Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan.”
When the president threatened to veto a bill that would bring troops home, Allen responded with this statement:
“Congress will soon send the president a bill that supports the troops and ends U.S. involvement in the Iraq war. The president’s choice is simple. He can sign the bill and start bringing our troops home, or he can veto the bill and leave Americans in the middle of a civil war without end. He can sign the bill to provide billions of dollars in equipment for troops in Iraq and for the wounded veterans who come home, or he can veto the bill and delay their relief. I strongly urge the president to sign the bill.”
The American people have been outraged at the blatant use of the Bush administration’s power to give contracts and favors to their friends. The new Congress is putting an end to those policies.
“At long last, the new Congress is ending the administration’s practice of awarding government contracts to its friends at the expense of the taxpayer and the public interest,” said Rep. Allen. “For six years, the former majority turned a blind eye, shunned its oversight responsibilities and failed to check the administration’s abuses. From the truckloads of ice and empty trailers of Katrina, to the billions unaccounted for in Iraq reconstruction funds, to the outsourcing of care for the wounded at Walter Reed, Americans are fed up with dysfunctional government that has failed to account for how our tax dollars are spent. The days of Halliburton’s taxpayer-funded war profiteering are over. HR 1362 establishes common-sense rules to restrict no-bid and cost-plus contracts and assure that Congress and the American people see the details of all contracts and receive an honest accounting for the disbursement of public funds.”
Health care —
“I believe that health care will be the dominant domestic issue in 2008. The goal has to be universal coverage. We need to be working productively towards that goal. I think there are three steps that we should take as soon as we find the money.
“Firstly, we need to cover all children. There still are eight to nine million children that do not have health insurance in America. Those are the most important health dollars you can spend.
“Second, the small-business community is the place where you find the most working uninsured, therefore the plan that I’ve introduced would subsidized small businesses (of 50 or fewer employees; the number could be adjusted). By having the federal government pick up the cost of the most expensive health-care cases in a given year, it should sharply reduce the cost of health insurance for small businesses,” said the congressman. “The plan is modeled on what we get as federal employees. My bill would guarantee, for small business owners and employees, a choice of two to four different insurance plans in a state, subject to state law, with subsidy for low-income workers and smaller businesses. In this way we make sure that we cover people and we reduce the cost to business at the same time. We will find a way to pay for it.
“The third component is that everyone over the age of fifty should be able to buy into Medicare, maybe without a subsidy or with a small subsidy. Medicare is the most cost-effective health-care plan in the country. By letting people into the system who are early retirees, we let them lessen their responsibility to their former employers and spread the responsibility of health care to all of us. After all, we are in this together. This would be an enormous help to Ford or GM.”
GM spends millions of dollars in health care. Two-thirds of their health-care costs go to their retirees before they are eligible for Medicare and to supplements afterwards. As a result of burgeoning health-care costs, GM has closed facilities. “I think that American business simply cannot bear that kind of cost and still be competitive in the global economy,” said Allen.
The American auto industry, in large part, has kept to union deals that have guaranteed workers have health-care coverage. There are many companies who actively discourage unions being formed. Rep. Allen was an original cosponsor of HR 800, an Employee Free Choice Act, which improves protections for employees attempting to unionize. The bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives by a vote of 241 to 185.
“The American middle class is witnessing an erosion of health insurance coverage, pension benefits, and job security,” said Rep. Allen. “Union members are better off than non-unionized employees in all three areas in large measure because they negotiated for them through the collective bargaining process. The Employee Free Choice Act helps level the playing field between employers and employees by strengthening penalties for employers who break the law and better protecting employees during the organizing process. After decades of erosion of workers’ rights, this legislation is a big step forward for hardworking American families.”
“There are a lot of parts to the health-care issue; we have to figure out how to encourage people to take better care of themselves. We need to have cost containment of a scale and in ways we haven’t done. In the long run we need a more simplified system. We spend tons of money in this country on insurance companies that cover the healthy not the sick, the young not the old, and not paying claims when they are made. We’ve even reached the point where providers, like doctors and hospitals, are actually hiring professional consultants to collect bills from insurance companies. And insurance companies have a vast amount of staff figuring out whether they can avoid paying claims. Too many people are doing too much paperwork, and as a result too much money is going into the health-care system but not for health care.”
Almost a sixth of the nation’s population does not have health-care coverage. In Maine the uninsured rolls have decreased since Dirigo Health’s inception, while 47 other states have seen dramatic increases in people losing insurance coverage.
“We’re now at a point where 47,000,000 people do not have health insurance — an area with the population of New England, New York, and New Jersey combined — that’s a lot of people,” said Allen. “One of the consequences is that people that don’t have health insurance don’t get the quality health care that others do. There is a real discrepancy in the kind of health care people without insurance get. The second factor is the private market in the business community ends up paying for much of the cost of the uninsured. No other developed country would tolerate our system.”
Rep. Allen with his wife, Diana, waves to supporters at the last MDP convention. Photo by Ramona du Houx
“In the first hundred hours we did a bill to cut interest rates on student loans in half over the next five years. That legislation will be enormously helpful for college students,” said Allen.
“We need to focus, as a party, on younger voters, 18–30 years old. Younger voters are the people who frankly are suffering most of the fatalities in Iraq. This is the age group that is least likely to have health insurance; these young adults are trying to get a higher education, but are finding it increasingly out of reach because the costs have been going up so fast. This generation will be more impacted by climate change than any of us past fifty. And finally this is the generation that will pay a price for the fiscal irresponsibility of the Bush administration and a dysfunctional Republican Congress. This generation has to become more politically involved for the sake of the county and for their own self-preservation,” said Allen.
“Unlike the Reagan presidency, where younger people looked at Ronald Reagan and said, ‘this is the president I know and I like him,’ younger people now are looking at the Bush administration and former Republican Congress and saying, ‘this is not what I believe; this is not the kind of county I want to live in’.
“For a host of reasons, young people now are trending Democratic. Partly because of Iraq and partly because they are living in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world, and they know this ethic that you stand on your own two feet and we’re not going to help you — you’re on your own — is wrong. That kind of radical individualism is not a philosophy for the 21st century.
“We are all individuals. We all believe in standing on our own two feet and working hard; that’s part of the American way. But when we are successful on important things it’s always because we’ve worked together with others to accomplish something meaningful. I think that government and politics is the realm where you have to be focused on finding the common purpose for the common good and reaching that goal in practical ways,” said Allen.