Toward a people’s agenda
George Gresham, President of 1199SEIU | 9/14/2017, 4:05 p.m.
As Congress returns to work after its annual August recess, we need to step up our resistance efforts. On Congress’ agenda are a number of packages that will affect us all. They include next year’s budget, raising the nation’s debt ceiling, tax reform and agreeing on an infrastructure package. The National Flood Insurance Program, which is $25 million in debt and facing a glut of new claims from the victims of Hurricane Harvey, needs to be reauthorized by Congress
A central issue for health care workers is the need for Congress to extend federal funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides coverage for some 9 million low-income children. The Wall Street Journal reported Aug. 29 that state officials are concerned that Congress might attempt to withhold funding for CHIP. With a history of bipartisan support and funding by federal and state governments, the program is hailed universally for its positive outcomes. But, according to the WSJ, Republicans might attempt to attach provisions to the funding reauthorization as a means to chip away at the Affordable Care Act. President Trump, like a dog with a bone, refuses to let go of his commitment to strangle the ACA.
His budget proposals reveal his fake populism and allegiance to the 1 percent. It calls for slashing $1.5 trillion from Medicaid, $59 billion from Medicare and $64 billion from Social Security over the next 10 years. The president can count on the support of his party for these anti-people, pro-corporate initiatives.
Reliance on the business community is at the centerpiece of the president’s and many of his Congressional colleagues’ philosophy and budget initiative. Although the White House has failed to produce a plan for its heralded $1 trillion infrastructure initiative, the president has stressed that when it’s rolled out it would depend largely on financing—and, of course, control—by the private sector.
So it is with the unprecedented Hurricane Harvey. While the president was praising the work of elected officials and courageous volunteers during the devastating superstorm, he failed to mention that he has called for federal retreat from disaster relief efforts, including massive cuts to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Highway Trust Fund. The president has also called for the elimination of federal grants to assist disaster evacuees
And last month, the president announced he was rolling back an order by President Obama that infrastructure projects, such as roads and bridges, be designed to survive rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change.
But climate change is not in the vernacular of the president and too many like-minded members of Congress. Although the president and members of Congress have rightly praised the courage and compassion of the Harvey rescue teams, including civilian heroes, they continue to pursue policies that will make future Harveys far more likely.
Harvey produced the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years. And the hurricane was made more intense by the effects of climate change—a warmer ocean, rising sea levels and more water vapor in the air. The city’s crumbling infrastructure and overdevelopment were also key factors. Houston is by far the nation’s largest city without a zoning code. Developers can build what and where they wish.
As demonstrated by the heroes of the storm and countless individual contributions, the people of our country favor whatever government support is needed to help the victims return to their homes and livelihoods.
But it is also crucial to learn from disasters to help prevent their recurrence and to make our cities and communities safer and more resilient. This goal cannot be achieved without coming to grips with the undisputable fact that climate change and extreme weather are upon us. We can expect storms to increase in frequency and intensity unless we take major steps to decrease the percentage of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
We must also acknowledge that mega-storms and other climate disasters do not affect us all equally. The most vulnerable, the elderly and infirmed, and those in the frontline communities—generally people of color and the poor—bear the heaviest burden.
Although Washington’s current political alignment means that we in the progressive community have largely been playing defense, we are beginning to see divisions in the nation’s capital. What we do now on the ground can increase those splits and create space to work for a people’s agenda.
George Gresham is president of 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, the largest union in New York and the largest healthcare union in the nation.