As the 116th Congress commences, it does so with a daunting to-do list. Most urgently, leaders on Capitol Hill must come to an agreement with President Trump to fund the government and end the shutdown. Beyond this critical item, 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’s 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 is now in the majority, with many members well-positioned in leadership roles and 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 economic well-being.
First, our region would benefit tremendously from a federal infrastructure investment package. Fortunately, the need for such investment is one area where leaders on both sides of the aisle — and the president — can agree. Questions remain about the final price tag and how it will be paid for. Two possibilities are a gas tax increase or a vehicle miles traveled tax. 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. Meanwhile, the number of drivers on the roads in New England increased by 1.45 million from 1996 to 2016, and vehicle miles traveled increased by nearly 19 percent during that same period.
Infrastructure investment 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 ten 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 nations, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, and announced withdrawal from its predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement in six months, pressuring Congress to approve the USMCA.
Mexico and Canada are top export markets for all six New England states. In 2017, New England exported over $8.3 billion in goods to Canada, and another $4.4 billion to Mexico. And so the new agreement 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 leadership in medical innovation, a third priority for New England is federal research funding, particularly for the National Institutes of Health. NIH funding has seen bipartisan support and consistent increases in recent years. Not only does research develop new treatments for diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s, to ALS, to cancer, but it’s also a huge economic driver. In 2017, NIH funding to New England totaled $3.64 billion, supporting 44,705 jobs in the region, including over 2,000 in Rhode Island. Investment in NIH research is yet another win-win for New England, and we hope to see continued increases in 2019.
There are of course a variety of other incredibly important issues likely to come before Congress in the year ahead, including measures to improve our immigration system and to address health care and energy costs, just to name a few. But The New England Council believes that attention to these three items — infrastructure, trade, and research funding — 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, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth.