WGBH: Meet Jim Brett: He Carries The Weight Of New England On His Shoulders
As originally appearing in WGBH

BY DAVID S. BERNSTEIN

 

“Larry Bird’s not coming through that door tonight,” says Jim Brett, President of the New England Council (NEC). “Robert Parish is not coming through that door tonight. And Tip O’Neill’s not coming through that door tonight.”

Brett doesn’t mean this as an insult to the region’s current Washington lawmakers (or to the Celtics, who went on to lose by 44 points to the Cavaliers that night). The former state representative and Boston mayoral candidate, who has led the regional business advocacy group for two decades, is simply acknowledging that Massachusetts, and the other New England states, no longer hold the kind of sway they did in the days when Speaker O’Neill, Ted Kennedy, Joe Moakley, and other giants pulled strings in the halls of the Capitol.

But, given the circumstances—a regional delegation of almost all Democrats, when Republicans control the Presidency and both chambers of Congress—Brett sounds cautiously optimistic about the protection of New England’s interests, on the heels of NEC’s annual Spring Event in Washington. Brett led a group of some 260 people on the trip, where they heard from an array of high-level officials to get the current lay of the land on everything from tax reform to higher education.

That land, of course, is constantly shifting in the frenetic Trump era. During the NEC event, the co-chairs of the House Ways & Means Committee—Richard Neal of Springfield, Massachusetts, and Kevin Brady of Texas—laid out the likely directions for the tax reform bill, which carries huge consequences for NEC members. But just since they returned from D.C., developments in the Russia election meddling scandal have tamped down expectations of that bill happening at all. Who knows whether that assessment will change again in another two weeks?

“There is so much uncertainty,” Brett says. “Our members get concerned when there’s no predictability.”

Brett points to Neal as an example of regional influence, using long-developed bipartisan relationships to help craft the tax reform bill. Neal has also used his position as longest-serving New England House member to bring the region’s members together, increasing their influence as a group, Brett says. He also singles out Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and Congressmen Jim Himes of Connecticut, Peter Welch of Vermont, and Joe Kennedy of Massachusetts for their effectiveness across party lines.

Brett effuses about Susan Collins, the moderate Republican Senator from Maine, who he says will be a key player in health care reform. Collins spoke at NEC’s reception, where the buzz was about her rumored plans to run for Governor. “I told her, I hope you stay in the U.S. Senate, because we need you there,” Brett says.

For evidence of results, he points to a $2 billion increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the omnibus funding bill passed this month—a huge boon for New England, whose universities and hospitals take a disproportionate share of NIH grants. The Trump administration had wanted to cut the NIH budget. “An awful lot of people in the (New England) delegation had their fingers in that,” Brett says.

It remains to be seen whether they’ll have similar line-item successes in tax reform. Transportation and infrastructure spending, a top Trump priority, will be another important test of the delegation.

A test, too, for the six New England governors. Brett says that Charlie Baker, while publicly maintaining a safe political distance from Trump, has leveraged his relationships with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Vice President Mike Pence—until recently, another member of the Republican governor fraternity—to promote the state’s interests in the administration. Baker was just named to the Christie-chaired White House task force on opioid addiction. Earlier this year he talked Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao into greenlighting funds for the MBTA Green Line extension.

But there’s another set of unknowns that, while garnering less public attention, has Brett and his NEC members antsy. That’s the long list of regulatory and administrative appointments, for federal commissions and regional offices.

For example, many questions about pipeline siting and other energy issues will be decided by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Three of its five seats are currently empty and awaiting appointment by the President. Its current chair—who may or may not retain that position—is Bostonian Cheryl LaFleur.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) each have two empty seats out of five, awaiting appointments.

Then there are the six U.S. Attorneys for the region, and regional administrators for the Environmental Protection Agency, Housing and Urban Development, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, General Service Administration, and others. It’s not unusual for new Presidents to take many months to fill these positions, but nominees’ names start circulating earlier. This time, Brett says, the rumor mill is quiet; people don’t even know who Trump might be relying on for suggestions. “In normal times they’d lean on the senior Senators,” Brett says, but it seems unlikely that Trump’s team is taking Elizabeth Warren’s advice.

That’s yet another way that New England’s influence in Washington appears to be on the wane. But Brett refuses to be pessimistic. After all, the Celtics came back to win Sunday night.

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