The Rhode Island Congressional delegation laid the blame for escalating gasoline prices on speculators, and inaction on the highway act that could finance critically needed infrastructure improvements and new jobs on a small group of obstructionist Republicans, at the 2012 Congressional Breakfast hosted yesterday by the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce.
“This is an example of gridlock for no reason,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in reference to the Senate’s Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, or MAP-21, which has been held up in Washington for several months.
“We’ve been legislating on highways since the Eisenhower administration but we couldn’t get this done by the March 31st deadline.”
Representatives Jim Langevin and David Cicilline joined Whitehouse and Senator Jack Reed at the Crowne Plaza for an open discussion moderated by President of the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce Laurie White. After an address from entrepreneur Foster Sayers, owner of One to One Nexus Inc., the panel started off by discussing ways to stimulate entrepreneurial activity in Rhode Island. But the dialogue quickly moved on to transportation, and the “gridlock” surrounding MAP-21.
“We need to be better connected to the national and international economy,” said Reed, “and improvements to the airport and highways are key to that”
MAP-21, which authorizes two years of federal aid highway programs, passed in the Senate with a 74-22 majority. It was expected to create more than 3 million jobs nationwide and an estimated 8,100 in the state of Rhode Island. However, the bill stalled in the House of Representatives when the House was unable to get their own bill to the floor by the March 31 deadline. The bill would provide $500 million for infrastructure improvements in the next two years.
“It really weakens confidence when people see us fail to do something that we’ve done for over 50 years,” said Reed.
More than 200 business leaders were gathered in the hotel’s main ballroom for the open panel, which initially focused on new business opportunities and fostering innovation. However, the potential loss of over 8,000 jobs was clearly very much on Whitehouse’s mind.
“It’s really a failure of government,” he said. “The House was aware of the March 31st deadline, but they weren’t able to get their own bill together. They weren’t even able to get a bill that would allow them to discuss the Senate bill together.”
Instead, the MAP-21 deadline was extended to June; small consolation in Whitehouse’s eyes, who sees the bill as the best way to rebuild the deteriorating Providence Viaduct – the overland bridge that carries I-95 through downtown Providence. The Viaduct, one of I-95’s busiest stretches, remains functional today but is badly in need of maintenance, and would have hugely disruptive effects on regional transport and trade if it were to fail or require posted weight limits.
“It’s our only chance to rebuild I-95,” said Whitehouse, “but if builders aren’t able to have their plans set by mid June, they’re moving on.”
Whitehouse believes that if the bill is not pushed through soon, contractors that were on board to restore the decrepit highway will move on to other projects, taking jobs with them. Twenty-two Republicans joined the Democrats in passing MAP-21 through the Senate, however a small faction of Republicans is still holding things up in the House of Representatives.
“The Republican caucus has been hijacked by a small group of Republicans,” said Rep. Cicilline, in an effort to explain the House’s failures. “Congress has always had people with strong views, but now certain members of Congress are so firm in their principles that they refuse to compromise.” He said some Republicans equate compromise with being unprincipled and “you can’t govern like that.”
“Compromise among some in Washington is a bad word,” added Rep. Langevin, “and if that is the case, we’ll never get anything done. We have to put partisan politics aside and focus on dialogue and compromise.”
The bill’s delay is particularly frustrating to Whitehouse because he sees rebuilding the state’s decrepit infrastructure as the best way to bring down Rhode Island unemployment levels, the second highest in the country.
“Infrastructure, infrastructure, infrastructure,” said Whitehouse, in response to questions on how to kick-start job creation.
The other panelists took different stances when questioned on unemployment. Gaps in the education system, a lack of developing new business opportunities, and the state’s difficult housing market were all mentioned as areas that need to be addressed.
“We have to focus on closing our skills gap,” said Langevin, who asserted that Rhode Island employers are struggling to find local workers with the skills they need, and pointed to a disconnect between higher education and the work place as the root of the problem.
Reed took a different stance and pinpointed Rhode Island’s difficult housing market as one of the main causes.
“There is no ‘just do this’ solution,” said Reed. “But we are dragged down by our housing market. Places with the most difficult housing markets typically struggle the most because people struggling to keep their house are not out there spending.”
The discussion then took an unexpected turn into foreign affairs, as the panel was questioned on the Iran situation, and weighed in on the pros and cons of U.S. involvement.
“Sixty percent of Israeli public opinion indicates that they want any action to be a multinational one,” said Reed. “However, President Obama is stressing that we must first exhaust all diplomatic options. If the Iranians were to get a nuclear device, that would likely cause many other Middle Eastern nations to do the same.”
After a brief detour into the Middle East, moderator White, moved the discussion to the factors driving oil prices.
“Experts see an unprecedented amount of speculation in the oil market,” said Whitehouse, before adding the oil market currently consists of four times more speculators than stakeholders. “Supply is up and demand is down but, contrary to the laws of economics, price is still going up.”
“Exxon estimates that approximately 50 percent of price is related to speculation,” added Reed.
With time running short, the discussion wrapped up when Whitehouse was asked to comment on the rumors that have President Obama considering him for a Supreme Court nomination. The first-term senator was asked point blank if he would refuse an appointment.
“I would,” Whitehouse answered, firmly. “Maybe when unemployment is down around 3 percent I’ll consider it. But right now we have to work to get out of this gridlock and I want to be a part of that work.”