“How do you download the power of the federal government into the district you represent?”
That’s a key question Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens) has been asking himself and trying to answer as he serves his first term in Congress.
Citing as examples the ongoing battle over federal funding meant to aid Hurricane Sandy victims and the rebuilding effort here, and the successful effort to delay planned flood insurance premium increases, Jeffries told reporters, “There’s a very significant local connection to what happens in Washington and people at home.”
He was speaking during a roundtable discussion recently held at his district office in Brooklyn, one that covered everything from the Sandy funding to hospital closures, the federal budget, aid to the needy, immigration law and those areas where members of the House can find some bipartisanship.
Jeffries focused much of the conversation’s start on efforts to save struggling hospitals in Brooklyn, and then shifted to the disbursement of Sandy aid.
“In the view of myself and of many of my colleagues in Congress, the city has failed” in its efforts to assist residents still recovering from the storm, he said. “Build it Back has been a disaster. ... The federal government provided billions of dollars, and the city must do its job to ensure the funds make it out to the communities I represent to help people get back on their feet.”
Jeffries spoke shortly after it was revealed that the government may reallocate some funds that were expected to provide Sandy relief, an issue he and two other New York City congressmen addressed at a press conference the next day.
He said he hopes the reforms Mayor de Blasio is implementing on Build it Back will fix the program, and also touted the success he and other members of Congress had in putting off flood insurance premium hikes that he said would have hit people “like a freight train.”
Two other issues Jeffries raised that he said are priorities for him are immigration reform and federal spending. The congressman serves on the House Judiciary and Budget committees, the key panels on those issues, respectively.
Jeffries supports changes to immigration law that would include legalizing undocumented aliens already here.
“If we can get comprehensive immigration reform passed, it can lead to a path to citizenship for many people in the 8th District in Brooklyn and Queens,” he said.
And while Jeffries said he has found common ground with Republicans on some issues, he blasted the House GOP majority and Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) on their spending plan, which he said contains cuts that would hurt the country deeply.
He said the budget would cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by $125 billion over 10 years, reduce spending on higher education by $260 billion and turn Medicaid into a voucher program, all of which he finds unacceptable.
“The Republican budget is a product of the same extreme, reckless mentality that brought us the 16-day budget shutdown in November,” he said, claiming it would be balanced “on the backs of seniors, the poor, the sick and the afflicted.
“It’s incredible to me that this type of document could be brought to the floor and be passed by the House of Representatives — with no Democratic votes,” he said.
Asked then by the Queens Chronicle how he would tackle the nation’s $17 trillion debt in the roundtable’s first question, Jeffries said it is important to remember that the imbalance between revenue and spending is not the fault of President Obama, and noted that there was a surplus at the end of former President Clinton’s two terms but a deficit at the end of former President George W. Bush’s tenure. Under Obama the annual deficit has been cut faster than at any time since the end of World War II, he added.
Asked again how he would address the remaining deficit and debt, Jeffries said the government should make investments in the economy of the kind that used to be bipartisan but have not been since 2010. That’s the year the Republicans retook the majority in the House. He said that under Clinton, such public investments resulted in the creation of 20 million jobs, while under Bush, 650,000 jobs were lost.
“We have to invest, make significant cuts and figure out ways to close tax loopholes for the oil and gas industry; those aren’t necessary,” Jeffries said, without saying where spending reductions could be made.
But while the congressman blasted the GOP on the budget, he said he has found areas of bipartisanship, and that he has been pleasantly surprised by how much a member of the minority party can do in the House, compared to the situation he witnessed in the state Assembly, where he previously served and Democrats rule the roost. It was a point later reiterated, without prompting, by Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing), in an interview with the Chronicle editorial board. Meng is also a freshman who previously served in the Assembly.
Jeffries said he and many Republicans alike see the need to reform the criminal justice system. He serves on a bipartisan task force he said is trying to address “the overcriminalization of America,” especially regarding “the failed war on drugs.”
And, he added, members of both parties agree on the need to reform the National Security Agency, which has come under fire for its vast data collection programs, both foreign and domestic.
“In my humble opinion, the NSA is out of control,” Jeffries said, “and I’ll say that with the knowledge that the NSA is probably listening right now.”