They're coming back to Washington with a wish list in their hands

December 21, 2008|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,

Washington - Everyone's got a wish list at holiday time. With Washington about to go on a spending spree of massive proportions, it's a good time to survey members of Maryland's congressional delegation and find out what's on their list for 2009.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski's goal to "get our economy rolling again" is no doubt shared by all. And who could argue with House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer's desire to help President Barack Obama succeed in saving millions of jobs next year?

Making health care more efficient, cleaning up the environment, getting U.S. troops out of Iraq and keeping Americans from losing their homes are among the Marylanders' broad goals.

But looked at more closely, the views of Maryland's representatives suggest something else: outlines of an agenda that, under a new Democratic president, could well produce one of the most active periods of government in Washington since the Great Society of the 1960s.

The rare combination of an economic emergency and a popular new president has the potential to generate significant action on initiatives that might otherwise have gotten bogged down in D.C. gridlock.

The ideas fall into two major categories: short-term and longer. The first includes spending designed to boost economic recovery by providing the quickest stimulus - though the full impact of many projects won't be felt soon. Obama warned Friday that fixing the economy will take "years, not months. It will get worse before it gets better."

At the top of the list: public works programs, unsexy but effective. Upward of $200 billion will likely be spent on infrastructure projects, including building new highways and updating existing roads and bridges.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore says he is encouraged that Obama, the first urban president of the modern era, is sensitive to the problems of cities and has hinted that money should go to areas with the greatest need.

"Our schools are in horrible shape in the city - I'm talking about the physical structures," he said. Estimates call for spending at least $20 billion nationally to repair existing buildings.

Putting medical records online, at a cost of $50 billion over five years, is another likely piece of a stimulus package.

State governments will get in the neighborhood of $100 billion nationally to close the gap for Medicaid, the health care program for the poor. There is also likely to be additional direct aid to bail states out of a hole that is forcing many, including Maryland, to consider layoffs next year.

But beyond the stimulus package - which could reach $1 trillion over two years - are the initiatives that could define Obama's presidency. They would strengthen the economy over the long haul, proponents say, but might not provide an immediate boost.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen expects Obama to make a substantial new investment in early childhood education. The Montgomery County congressman calls it "a key part of helping ensure that everyone has the ability to compete in today's economy."

Rep. John P. Sarbanes of Baltimore and others want more money for public transportation, including short-term aid to systems like MARC, the backbone of the region's transportation system.

"The public went looking for a good public transit system when gas prices hit $4, and they discovered that there wasn't one," he says.

As the first president to take office with a commitment to dealing with climate change, Obama is likely to make clean energy a central focus of his administration.

Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin thinks there could finally be action on a global warming measure that would require companies to pay for the right to pollute, under a so-called cap-and-trade system.

Rep.-elect Frank Kratovil, who will represent the Eastern Shore, would like progress on wind farms, new incentives for biodiesel production and jobs programs linked to protecting the Chesapeake Bay.

Several Maryland representatives said they expect Congress to expand the state children's health insurance program during the first 100 days of the Obama administration.

That Democratic initiative, vetoed by President George W. Bush last year, would extend health coverage to millions of uninsured children.

Other ideas that have gone nowhere in the past but could be revived next year include allowing seniors between the ages of 55 and 64 to buy their way into Medicare, which provides health coverage only to those 65 and up.

Cardin and others see an opportunity to achieve universal health care, a goal that has eluded proponents for decades.

Overhauling the nation's health care system "cannot happen through incremental change," said Cardin. "It's the hardest of Obama's goals to achieve. ... Clearly a stretch, but worth fighting for."

The battle over new spending will not only be with groups that will fight at every turn to protect their interests, but with conservative Democrats and Republicans, who may balk at increasing the national debt and could have the votes in Congress to block action.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, the state's last remaining Republican in Washington, emphasized savings in his wish list, which includes energy conservation, cuts in unnecessary defense spending and health reforms designed to increase individual choice.

He also wants to see more investment in energy efficiency and military research and development.

Kratovil, the most conservative Democrat in the delegation, hopes Washington doesn't go overboard in giving the economy a boost. He also wants the stimulus package to target families that are struggling to make ends meet.

The incoming freshman's focus on pocketbook concerns could warm the heart of Van Hollen, who chairs the House Democrats' campaign arm. His personal wish, he said, is that "all the new Democratic members of Congress do everything right in 2009, so we don't have to worry about them in 2010."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.