HBJ: Economic priorities for Congress in the New Year
As originally appearing in The Hartford Business Journal

As the 116th Congress commences this month, it does so with a daunting to-do list.

The most urgent issue, of course, is ending the government shutdown.

Beyond that, there are a number of important issues that will come before Congress this year, many of which will have a tremendous impact on the economy here in New England.

It is important to note that New England’s clout in Congress has shifted significantly with Democrats taking control in the House of Representatives. Our all-Democratic House delegation now find themselves in the majority, with many members well-positioned in leadership roles, including House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, and Democratic Caucus Vice Chair Rep. Katherine Clark, all from Massachusetts.

And New England representatives hold senior seats on other key committees, affording them an opportunity to shape policy on important issues ranging from energy to health care to national security.

Of the many items on Congress’ agenda in the year ahead, there are several that The New England Council believes to be of critical importance to our region’s continued economic well-being.

First, our region would benefit tremendously from a major federal infrastructure investment package. And fortunately, the need for such investment is one area where leaders on both sides of the aisle — and the White House — can agree.

Questions remain about the final price tag and how it will be paid for. An increase in the gas tax or a vehicle miles travelled tax are the two most discussed options. But with our harsh weather and aging infrastructure, there is no question that upgrades are desperately needed in our region.

Take bridges for example. Nearly 65 percent of our region’s 18,000 bridges are rated as either fair or poor by the Federal Highway Administration. At the same time, the number of drivers on the roads in New England increased by 1.45 million from 1996 to 2016, and vehicle miles travelled increased by nearly 19 percent during that same period.

Not only would infrastructure investment allow for necessary upgrades, but it would also create jobs. The Trump administration estimated that $1.5 trillion in infrastructure investments would employ between 290,000 and 414,000 additional workers over 10 years. Bottom line: An infusion of federal infrastructure dollars would be a win-win for New England.

Another critical issue for New England is trade, and in particular, ongoing free trade with Canada and Mexico. In late 2018, President Trump signed a modernized trade agreement with these key trade partners, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and announced withdrawal from its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in six months, putting the pressure on Congress to approve the USMCA.

The importance of trade with Canada and Mexico for our region cannot be understated. Our neighbors to the north and south are top export markets for all six New England states. In 2017 alone, New England exported over $8.3 billion in goods to Canada, and another $4.4 billion worth to Mexico. And so the USMCA is good news for New England and it’s important that businesses continue to voice support for the agreement to our Congressional delegation.

Given our region’s strengths as a global medical innovation hub, a third priority for New England is federal research funding, particularly for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH funding has seen bipartisan support in Washington these past few years, and after several years of devastating cuts, this funding has been increased the past several years.

Not only does federally funded research bring about new treatments and cures for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s and ALS to cancer, but it’s also a huge economic driver in New England. In 2017, NIH funding totaled $3.64 billion for the six New England states, and supported 44,705 jobs in the region, including over 6,000 in Connecticut.

The New England Council believes that attention to these three items will reap great economic benefits for New England and the entire nation.

James T. Brett is the president and CEO of The New England Council, a non-partisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions in New England.

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