In an era where the United States Congress is in the unfortunate position of aspiring to the relatively high levels of public approval enjoyed by dentists and personal injury lawyers, it can be hard to find a reason for optimism when considering difficult challenges like job creation, student loan reform, and infrastructure investment.
But that doesn’t stop 6th District Congressman John Tierney.
“We have an opportunity going forward. Those of us (in Congress) who want to cooperate, who want to move the President’s agenda forward, just have to keep working together, we have to keep trying to reach across the aisle and get things done,” said Tierney in a recent conversation with GateHouse Media editors and reporters in the 6th District. “We’ve made some progress; we’ve gotten rid of sequestration, which was to me legislative malpractice, and now we have a budget that is trending in the right direction. We have to keep going.”
It was one of the few bright spots in a wide-ranging discussion that included critiques of his colleagues, particularly the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party.
“We have a group of one of our political parties that is fixated on an interpretation of the Constitution that only includes personal freedom, and anything else that the government can do to promote justice or growth is an abuse of power. The rank and file of the Republican Party, many of them would like to work with us on various issues, but they are frozen with fears of primary challenges," the Salem Democrat said.
"And yet, when it comes time to reap the rewards of spending money on things like infrastructure improvements, you see all Republicans of all philosophies at the ribbon cuttings. They may not want to fund the government, but they want to take credit for when the government succeeds in making people’s lives better.”
In many ways, Tierney is emblematic of this fractious climate. After one of the most high-profile reelection campaigns of 2012, he was sent back to Washington by a hairsbreadth. His Republican challenger, former state Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei, came within a percentage point of unseating Tierney, despite the district’s Democrat majority. In large part, this was a result of a campaign narrative that tied Tierney to the illegal offshore betting ring of his wife’s family, though dissatisfaction with the dysfunction of Congress was a definite factor.
Today, Tierney is already facing two primary challenges -- from Marine Corps veteran and Salem resident Seth Moulton and Middleton immigration attorney Marisa DeFranco -- and has been surpassed in fundraising by both Moulton and Tisei, who has declared he will run again in 2014. And certainly, Tierney’s alacrity in pointing out the culpability of obstructionist Republicans in the House’s continued inability to pass laws gives a window into some of the rhetoric that will be a factor in this fall’s campaign.
“If you want Democratic policies, and I think many people do, then you have to put a Democrat in office,” Tierney said. “Right now, the Republican policy is to put shutting the government on the table, to threaten the economic future of the country, and hope for the best.”
It’s not all been doom and gloom this legislative session, however. Working with Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, Tierney has been hard at work crafting legislation aimed at relieving the burden of student loan debt.
“We have made some great strides in providing relief for students with government loans, but now what we’re looking at is what we can do for students who have already graduated with private loans,” Tierney said. “One of our thoughts is creating a pool that would allow students with private loans to sell them and buy them back at a better interest rate, using money from closing corporate tax loopholes," Tierney said.
"There’s a lot we can do without even touching the tax rate. Every year, $20 billion in economic growth is lost because young people are paying back high interest rates on student loans.”
Wage equity is important to Tierney. He speaks with passion of closing the wage gap between men and women, which according to some metrics is as large as 23 percent, and of the need to raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 -- at the least.
“If we simply scaled the 1968 wage up to match the cost of living, we would get a number today that is closer to $11 an hour, so I think this is the least we can do,” Tierney said. “Raising the minimum wage would not only raise millions out of poverty, it would alleviate the burden that taxpayers pick up in subsidizing the low wages offered by employers like McDonalds through things like food and housing aid for employees. It’s the right thing to do.”
Other dreams might be a little more unattainable, such as a handgun law that would require technology that only allows registered owners to fire guns, or tamper-proof Oxycontin capsules. But all are part of an agenda that Tierney still hopes is feasible, despite the nation’s growing partisan rifts.
“I truly believe that most of us know that, unless you’re willing to invest in people, you can’t move forward,” Tierney said. “Now we just need to get votes to the floor.”