Salem News: NE Council head sees region’s delegation as a ‘powerhouse’ As originally appearing in The Salem News
ETHAN FORMAN/Staff photo – Jim Brett, CEO and president of the New England Council, speaks at the Ipswich Country Club on Wednesday morning.
By Ethan Forman
IPSWICH — New England’s congressional clout is in turnaround, James Brett says.
Two years ago, after the election of Republican Donald Trump to the presidency, the region’s nearly all-Democratic lawmakers lacked seniority and influence, said Brett, president and CEO of the New England Council.
That changed with November’s midterm elections, Brett told the business leaders gathered at the Ipswich Country Club Wednesday morning for the North Shore Chamber of Commerce’s monthly breakfast
“I would say, today, that our region, our New England congressional delegation is a powerhouse in the new 116th Congress,” Brett said.
Nationwide, Democrats picked up at least 40 seats in the House, wresting control from Republicans. In New England, all 21 House seats are held by Democrats (though the race in the 2nd District of Maine is headed to a recount).
Brett, a former state representative from Dorchester, has overseen the New England Council since 1996. The council represents the interests of schools, hospitals, corporations and private organizations on Capitol Hill on regional issues such as trade, energy, infrastructure and transportation.
Brett said 1st District U.S. Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield, the longest-serving member of the delegation, will become chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means when the new Congress convenes in January.
The committee plays an important role on legislation on trade, tax policy, health care, Medicare, Medicaid, private investment savings plans, Brett said.
Neal has earned respect in Congress by keeping a low profile and working across the aisle, Brett said.
“He doesn’t say outrageous things about his colleagues on the other side,” he said. “He’s not on the talking-head shows bashing the administration, bashing the other side. He wants to get things done.”
The other power player from Massachusetts will be 2nd District U.S. Rep. James McGovern of Worcester, who is poised to become the chairman of the Rules Committee.
“The Rules Committee is really like the traffic cop,” Brett said. “He or she would decide when a bill would come to the floor. He or she would decide how many amendments would be accepted, also determine how long the debate would be.”
Fifth District U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark of Melrose has been picked as vice chairwoman of the Democratic caucus, the fifth-ranking member of the Democratic leadership. Fourth District U.S. Rep. Joe Kennedy III of Newton will be a majority member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“Your own North Shore congressman, Seth Moulton, is extremely well-positioned to advocate for our region’s military installations and defense sector because he is a member of the Armed Services Committee and he has been outstanding in being an advocate on those important issues,” Brett said.
With it likely California’s Nancy Pelosi likely to return as House speaker, Brett said, health care will be a priority. That includes work on guaranteeing coverage for pre-existing conditions and lowering the cost of prescription drugs. Pelosi will also push an infrastructure bill early in the session, he said..
“Infrastructure is a big, big issue,” Brett said. “They think, by starting off with infrastructure, we can get both sides, Democrat and Republican, to support an infrastructure bill.”
Infrastructure spending is seen as both a way to create tens of thousands of jobs and address public safety issues surrounding 18,000 bridges in New England, 9 percent of which Brett said are rated “unsafe” by the Federal Highway Administration.
“The question will be, how do we fund it? Brett said.
Trump had proposed an infrastructure bill of more than $1 trillion, with much of it paid for through public-private partnerships. Even the National Chamber of Commerce said a few years ago it would be in favor of a gas tax hike, which hasn’t been increased since 1993 on the federal level, Brett said.
On trade, Brett said New England exports more than $8 billion worth of goods to Canada. Of that, $4.4 billion comes from Massachusetts.
Brett said the council is not in favor of tariffs.
“Many of our companies are … very worried,” Brett said. Tariffs, including 10 percent on steel and 25 percent on aluminum, are a concern. Brett noted Trump has signed a new version of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Brett said is a good thing. However, it faces an uphill battle in Congress over certain trade protections for the auto industry.
“Unfortunately, there are members of Congress and unions who are now voicing strong, strong concerns and outright — depending on the union — opposition to the bill, which sends us another red flag,” Brett said. There’s concern the new trade deal could unravel if Congress attempts to make significant changes and Trump refuses to sign on.
“And if it does, I think it’s going to cause a ripple effect, to say the least, with the economy of New England,” Brett said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.