Kilmer Says Best Economic Returns Depend on Bipartisanship

January 30, 2023 by Dan McCue
Kilmer Says Best Economic Returns Depend on Bipartisanship
Rep. Derek Kilmer, Democrat representing Washington states's 6th Congressional District. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., admits he initially found the notion slightly intimidating.

Day after day as he arrived for work in the economic development office in Tacoma-Pierce County, Washington, he was greeted by a sign that said, “We are competing with everyone, everywhere, every day, forever.”

But as high as it set the bar every morning, Kilmer also saw it as “a pretty good ethic.”

“And not just for folks who work in local economic development … I think it’s a pretty good ethic for our country, too,” he added to knowing nods from members of his audience.

Kilmer was speaking before attendees of “Building Resilient Communities: Leveraging Employers to Increase Prosperity,” hosted by The Well News and co-sponsored by the Modern Economy Project and TechNet.

The subject at hand, posited by moderator Cori Kramer, was how one can craft an effective economic policy on Capitol Hill when so much of the dialogue doesn’t reflect the realities of the rest of the country.

Beyond embracing an awareness of the competitive nature of economics, Kilmer said that it is also important to embrace the principle that the country truly needs an economy that doesn’t leave people or entire communities behind.

He knows from whence he speaks. The district he represents is heavily engaged in the export of wood products and, like a lot of communities steeped in providing the raw materials for the products consumers buy, is vulnerable to economic shocks and slowdowns.

In fact for years, Port Angeles, Washington, Kilmer’s hometown, suffered from an unemployment rate that was as much as 2.3% higher than the Washington state average.

“The third principle I’d offer here today is that our ability to address number one and number two is hindered if we have a Congress that’s focused on the wrong stuff,” Kilmer said.

“The folks I represent have zero patience for political bull,” he continued. “They want us to solve their problems. They want us to embrace the notion that we are in a global competition, and they want to know we’re doing everything we possibly can to help their families and the communities in which they live.”

For the past four years, in the 116th and 117th Congresses, Kilmer co-led a bipartisan team of lawmakers known as the House Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress.

Given its cumbersome name, it was quickly dubbed the “Fix Congress Committee,” which, Kilmer joked, either inspired people to giggle or to offer to pray for him.

Its task was to investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient and transparent.

By the time it wrapped up its work in December, the committee had advanced a total of 202 recommendations, three-quarters of which have either been implemented or are on the path towards implementation.

In an interview with The Well News following his appearance at “Building Resilient Communities,” Kilmer said the committee was founded on the principles about which he’d just been speaking.

“I mean, the bottom line is, our constituents want us to get good things done for them and to make their lives better. That’s all this is about. And for that to happen, you have to have a Congress that functions better than it has been.”

As an example, he pointed to a bipartisan recommendation to restore lawmakers’ ability to fund projects in their districts through the appropriation process.

Though often warily dismissed as “pork barrel” spending, Kilmer said the process envisioned by the committee would result in “real positives” for the communities we serve.

“For instance, in my own district, we could use it to get additional funding for flood-control projects in Aberdeen, Washington, and for more affordable housing in Tacoma, Washington, and for economic development in Bremerton, Washington,” he said. “So the work of the Modernization Committee has real implications for some of the economic opportunities that we talked about at the event.”

Though the select committee’s work is now done, the buzz on Capitol Hill is that the new Republican majority in the House is moving forward with the creation of a new subcommittee under the Committee on House Administration to continue to bring the best and most feasible of the recommendations to fruition.

“I give them a lot of credit for that,” Kilmer said. “And I think it’s a recognition that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worked on this and that that work resulted in some really good ideas.”

Speaking more broadly of the change of control of the House after the 2022 midterms, Kilmer said he believes the 116th and 117th Congresses “put a bunch of tools in the toolbox to support economic growth at the local level.”

“The infrastructure bill is a great example of that,” he said. “It’s enabling us to build out broadband to communities, to invest in port infrastructure, to build roads and bridges and to make investments in transit that enables workers to get to available jobs.

“All of these are tools that the federal government, on a bipartisan basis, added to the toolbox in a way that will really benefit local communities.

“One thing I neglected to mention at the event was a provision of the CHIPS and Science Act that I authored called the ‘RECOMPETE Act,’” Kilmer said. “It’s a pilot program that will provide flexible, long-term grant support to communities that have faced persistent economic distress. 

“You know, I come from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, and a lot of those communities have struggled for a long time. And this will be, potentially, game changing to communities … whether it be timber towns, like those that I came from, or a mining town, you know, someplace else.”

Another “tool” Kilmer pointed to is the community project funding included in the omnibus government funding bill.

“A number of the communities in my district face a situation where 90% of their land mass is in the floodplain,” he said. “As a result, it’s really hard for them to attract housing investment and economic development and so we were able to secure funding — in both the omnibus and the bipartisan infrastructure bill — that’s going to fix that.

“In effect, that funding is going to enable us to pull a bunch of these properties out of the floodplain and that will make a massive difference in terms of the ability to grow the local economy,” he said. “With all of these things, I think the last Congress, under Democratic leadership, and under Joe Biden’s leadership, made sure people can put food on the table and keep the lights on.”

Asked whether he worries about the implementation of some of these programs now that the Democrats’ hands are no longer on the wheel, Kilmer was frank.

“It depends,” he said. “One of the risk factors that went into the creation of some of these programs — and I’m thinking specifically of the Inflation Reduction Act here, as well as the CHIPS and Science Act — is that they require annual appropriations.

“Now, the Republicans have been pretty vocal about the fact they intend to ratchet down domestic discretionary spending … and that does have the potential to undermine some of those investments. That’s why a big priority for me is making sure that we fully fund that RECOMPETE Act pilot program and to make sure it continues to be funded moving forward.”

How will he do that?

“Well,” Kilmer said, “I think to some degree, the administration and the Senate are going to have some say in this … and I don’t think either is going to have a strong appetite for undercutting some of their historic accomplishments.

“Now, as a member of the House, as an appropriator, part of my job is to go and make my case to my Republican colleagues and I’ve already started to do that with some of the priorities that are important to me,” he said.

Kilmer, who has been a member of the House since 2013, notes that he’s spent “plenty of time” in the chamber minority in the past, and he believes he’ll be able to work successfully with Republicans this time around.

“Of course, like anybody, I would prefer to be part of the majority, but I try to work with everybody and always have,” he said. “I look at my job as trying to do everything I can to deliver for my constituents. 

“So on the RECOMPETE Act, one thing I’ll bring to their attention is that when you’re dealing with trying to help rural and distressed communities broadly, you’re certainly helping red districts as well as blue. That’s the case I have to make to my colleagues. My job is to make sure we’re doing everything we can to secure that funding. And that’s exactly what I intend to do,” Kilmer said.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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