Levin charts progress

February 5, 2010
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We have just ended what ranks as perhaps the most difficult and challenging year for Michigan, and our nation, since I came to the Senate. We began 2009 facing uncertainty over the fate of the domestic auto industry. There was concern about our nation’s financial system. And we were engaged in two difficult, challenging wars.

Where have we come from those moments of fear and doubt? Without question, we’ve been through a tough 12 months. Unemployment in Michigan and across the nation continues at extremely high levels. Businesses and families, state and local governments, all are struggling with budgets under intense pressure. Millions across the country have lost their homes.

So we have much work ahead of us. But I also see reasons for optimism. Our automakers have come through a painful restructuring in a position to compete. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has protected vital government services and kicked off major infrastructure projects, creating or protecting thousands of jobs. We’re better positioned to prosper through revolutionary advances in alternative energy, from auto batteries to wind power to fuel from our fields and forests.

We began the year by passing the Recovery Act, which made a crucial impact in softening the blow of this recession. Michigan has been awarded, as I write this, more than $10 billion in Recovery Act funding, including extended unemployment benefits, support to state and local governments, and money for scores of infrastructure projects and other important needs. ARRA also waived the local match requirement for highway and mass-transit funds, providing relief to state and local transportation agencies.

The crisis in the domestic auto industry has, of course, been a major focus. The entire Michigan delegation worked closely with the Obama administration, the White House Auto Task Force, and the leadership of GM and Chrysler to ensure that each company was able to develop a workable restructuring plan. During the process, we obtained a commitment from GM to boost small-car production in the U.S., cars the company announced it will build in Michigan.

While preserving the auto industry in the present, we also established a way forward for a competitive future. We secured $2 billion in the Recovery Act for grants to U.S. manufacturers of advanced battery systems, vehicle batteries and electric power train components, $1.3 billion of which was awarded to Michigan–based companies and projects.

Consumers won an important victory in May, when the president signed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009. The Credit CARD Act was the culmination of a four-year, in-depth investigation into abusive and unfair credit card practices that I led as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. The bill, based on legislation I introduced in 2007, curbs abuses such as retroactive interest rate hikes and charging interest on debt paid on time.

Another bright spot was passage in March of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act. Provisions of the act will help preserve 12,000 acres of wilderness in Michigan’s Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore; increase funding and ease expansion and preservation of Keweenaw National Historic Park in the Upper Peninsula; designate the historic War of 1812 River Raisin battlefield in Monroe and Wayne counties as a national battlefield park; and make possible acquisition of land for the North Country National Scenic Trial, which crosses Michigan. The year also saw important new support for the Great Lakes. After years of effort, we secured as additional $475 million for a Great Lakes restoration effort.

At the end of the year, the senate approved historic legislation to reform our health care system, and I am optimistic we will send the president a final bill shortly.

I was also pleased that, after years of effort, Congress passed legislation aimed at preventing hate crimes motivated by disability, sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.

On the Senate Armed Services Committee, which I chair, much of our attention has been focused on the war in Afghanistan. Now that the president has ordered additional combat deployments, I have urged him to make development of Afghan forces our primary mission, and to maximize the side-by-side partnering on the battlefield, of NATO and Afghan troops in an effort to speed up that development.

We made important progress in 2009 on a longtime priority of mine: reform of the way the Pentagon develops and buys weapons. The Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 which I authored with Sen. John McCain and which we passed with the support of the president, takes important steps to prevent cost overruns and eliminate programs with out-of-control costs. In another important victory for disciplined spending, we ended the F-22 fighter program, which had much political support but would have spent scarce defense dollars on unneeded aircraft.

So we made some progress in some areas in 2009, despite the negative economic climate that so pervaded the year. Let me close by outlining my hope of 2010.

First, we can begin promoting job creation quickly and strongly. Discussions have intensified about legislation to boost job creation, and I am hopeful Congress can act early this year on a jobs package. I hope we can approve comprehensive legislation to reform the excesses in our financial system that helped bring about the economic crisis. Many of these excesses were egregious, and regulation to protect our people from financial abuses is essential.

We must also be vigilant in protecting our Great Lakes, including urgent action to prevent Asian carp from entering the lakes. Measures approved in 2009 give the Army Corps of Engineers authority to take emergency measures to stop the carp, which are a major threat to Great Lakes fisheries. But I and other Great Lakes lawmakers, and the Great Lakes Task Force I co-chair, are urging additional emergency action.

I’m optimistic about Michigan’s future, despite the great challenges we face. As always, I welcome your ideas and suggestions.

Carl Levin, D-Detroit, is a U.S. Senator from Michigan. He will speak at noon, Feb. 15, at the Economic Club of Grand Rapids.

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