Saturday, March 30, 2002

Mandate for the Middle: By Sen. JAMES M. JEFFORDS

November 30, 2002

Mandate for the Middle


I have listened to a lot of people discuss what went right and what went wrong in the 2002 midterm elections. In the final tally, there is no question that President Bush did a masterful job engineering victories for the Republican Party.

But I worry that the list of issues that dominated the election season was woefully incomplete. As we respond daily to the latest threats of terror highlighted by the administration, I believe other issues that bear directly on the security of our homeland are being dangerously obscured.

Our slumping economy, our threatened environment, our underfunded schools, our corporate scandals — these are not issues that you will hear discussed by the White House, but they are being talked about by people who don't have the power to define the nation's agenda.

In Congress we have just passed a law that will bring about the largest restructuring of our government since World War II. We are telling the American people that a new Department of Homeland Security will protect them. But Americans are losing their jobs and their ability to support their families. In less than two years, more than two million private sector jobs have been lost, while our economic growth is the weakest it has been in 50 years.

We should be addressing that homeland security issue.

Too many hard-working people are stuck in low-wage jobs, wondering how they will make the rent payment and cover child-care costs. The Census Bureau's recent income and poverty report stated that 1.3 million Americans slipped below the poverty line in the last year. This increase means that 11.7 percent of the United States population is living in poverty. The Census Bureau also reported that median household income decreased for the first time since 1991.

What's more, many workers who are fortunate enough not to have to worry about their jobs are now worrying about their savings. More than 50 percent of Americans have investments in the stock market, and they have seen the value of those investments decline by more than $4.5 trillion since last January.

We should be addressing that homeland security issue.

Coal plants in the Midwest continue to spew toxic pollutants into the air, yet the administration does not see the wisdom in regulating these emissions, preferring to rely on the good-faith efforts of plant owners to police themselves. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of people are dying prematurely every year from such pollution.

I was proud to work with President George H. W. Bush on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. He called our work "a new chapter in our environmental history, and a new era for clean air." Now, President George W. Bush insists on moving us backward, undoing his father's legacy and our nation's environmental policy. Last week the administration issued regulations to ease clean air rules to allow power plants to avoid having to install new antipollution equipment when they modernize their plants.

We should be addressing that homeland security issue.

The lack of funding for our schools is disgraceful. Of the major industrial nations, the United States ranks among the lowest in terms of financing education at the federal level, providing only 7 percent of the cost. The president's education plan is long on new federal mandates but short on the resources to make them work. The government promised more than 25 years ago to pay 40 percent of special education costs for children with disabilities; it now covers only 18 percent.

There's no question that we are living in a dangerous time. Some of the threats we face are being met with judgment and careful deliberation. But others, namely the steady erosion of economic opportunity here at home, are being ignored.

If the new, razor-thin Republican majority abuses its power and moves forward with an extreme agenda that overlooks the concerns of the many and benefits only the privileged few, there will be repercussions.

Since the election, my decision to leave the Republican Party last year has been subject to new scrutiny. The attention on my personal decision, while understandable, is misplaced. If the Republicans read the recent election results as a rejection of moderation and a mandate to steamroll opposition from within the party, they will be making a grave mistake.

James M. Jeffords, an independent, is the junior senator from Vermont.

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