With the new year comes a new Congress, and as the 114th Congress gets under way, there are many critical issues to be addressed. From ongoing budgetary concerns and the need to address our national debt, to tax reform, to investments in innovation and education, Congress’s to-do list is indeed long.
There are, however, several issues that the New England Council believes Congress must address this year in order to promote ongoing economic growth in New England and beyond. The first two are more immediate priorities: funding for our nation’s surface transportation programs and the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank of the United States. In the longer-term, we are hopeful that 2015 will be the year that Congress takes action to fix our broken immigration system and to address the shortage of highly skilled workers in the STEM (sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Transportation funding: Last summer, Congress passed and President Obama signed a short-term extension of the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) — the law that authorizes spending for federal highway, transit and safety programs. Congress has until May 31 to pass a new surface transportation bill, or once again face the need to enact a stop-gap measure.
The latter option would probably keep programs only on “cruise control.” However, a long-term, multi-year infrastructure law would bring stability in project planning and delivery, job growth and economic vitality to New England and the nation.
For Republicans and Democrats, the challenge will be in finding a mutually-agreeable and reliable funding source that will let our infrastructure network flourish. The New England Council remains hopeful that in the next few months, Congress can find common ground on a long-term reauthorization bill that provides the necessary funds that will ensure our transportation needs can be met.
Export-Import Bank: The Export Import-Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank) is America’s export credit agency, with a mission to assist “financing the export of U.S. goods and services to international markets.” Over the last eight decades, the Ex-Im Bank has helped businesses when other private financing tools were lacking.
The bank’s success is exemplified in its overall loan default rate of less than 2 percent, and in the last fiscal year, only 0.25 percent. In 2013, it generated $1 billion for the U.S. Treasury. Here in New England, the bank has financed $3.73 billion in exports since 2007, including $49.8 million in Rhode Island. Despite this success, the bank’s charter is due to expire on June 30, following a short-term reauthorization last fall. Passage of a long-term extension of the Ex-Im Bank’s charter this year is critical to help our region’s exporters grow and compete in the global economy, and the council urges Congress to take action in advance of the June deadline.
High-skilled immigration: Immigration reform has been a front-burner issue in Washington in recent years, and the council is hopeful that 2015 will bring sensible, comprehensive reform. It is particularly important that any reform include measures to address the shortage of highly-skilled workers in the STEM fields. There are simply not enough U.S.-born workers with the skills needed to fill open positions in our 21st century innovation economy. At the same time, there are also not enough H-1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers available under the current system.
The comprehensive immigration reform passed by the Senate in 2013 included a measure to address this problem. Specifically, the bill increased the cap on H-1B visas to address the shortage in the short term, while also allocating a portion of H-1B visa fees to enhance STEM education in order to develop a domestic pipeline of STEM workers in the long term. The council urges Congress to revisit comprehensive immigration reform in 2015, and to include measures to ensure access to a high-skilled workforce.
There are undoubtedly a number of other critical issues before the 114th Congress in the year ahead, including ongoing efforts to address the federal deficit, tackling our nation’s energy challenges, ongoing implementation of health-care and financial system reforms, and efforts to expand free trade and increase access to foreign markets — to name just a few.
However, the New England Council believes that by addressing these three priority issues — transportation funding, the Ex-Im Bank and high-skilled immigration reform — Congress has the opportunity to foster long-term economic growth here in New England and across the nation.
James T. Brett is the president and CEO of the New England Council, a nonpartisan alliance of businesses, academic and health institutions, and public and private organizations throughout New England formed to promote economic growth.