University News

At Hillel, Cicilline ’83 reflects on term

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, November 10, 2011

“The Congress of the United States is a pretty broken place right now,” said Rep. David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., to a group of students at a Jewish Leadership Seminar at Brown/RISD Hillel yesterday. “And if you weren’t aware of that, I’m here to tell you that it is.”

The former Providence mayor remembered the “urgency of the moment” of running the city. “We woke up as a team every day,” he said. But in his first 10 months in Congress, he found that same sense of urgency and cohesiveness nonexistent.

“There are people in the leadership of the House that are refusing really to take action, to do the things that we need to get the economy back on track,” Cicilline said in an interview with The Herald. “Congress is very committed to making sure that this is a one-term president.”

The refusal of Republican leaders to put aside partisanship and work for the well-being of the country is unacceptable, Cicilline said. “The American people can’t wait for us to take action on a lot of important issues.”

During his talk, Cicilline told students that the deterioration of bipartisanship in Washington is partially due to the changing culture and the “total breakdown of the relationship between the members of Congress.”

Members of Congress no longer move to Washington once they are elected, he explained, which limits their ability to build relationships with members of the other party and ultimately to respect their colleagues.

Instead, Cicilline said members of Congress are expected to constantly be in their home districts. Republican leaders of the House of Representatives have emphasized this assumption by setting a schedule that sends representatives to their home districts for one week each month, a policy that Cicilline said he suspects was devised to increase time available for campaigning.

Constantly being in campaign-mode furthers the negativity in Congress, Cicilline said, adding that the time spent working toward reelection prevents representatives from making progress in Washington. “I think we should be with our sleeping bags in the capital,” he said.

In a move to combat partisanship, Cicilline has teamed up with Rep. Nan Hayworth, R-N.Y., to form the Common Ground Caucus, a group devoted to bridging party lines. Representatives are not permitted to join the caucus individually — they must do so in conjunction with a representative from the other party. The group does not have a political agenda — it focuses instead on bringing representatives together to build relationships through group activities like bowling and attending baseball games.

Bonding activities aside, Cicilline noted that Congress has a bundle of serious issues on its plate, the foremost of which he identified as battling the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. He has advocated the promotion of American manufacturing through the elimination of disadvantageous trade policies.

As a member of the House Committee on Small Business, Cicilline has worked to make capital more available to small businesses. He told The Herald it is important to strengthen the middle class by providing small businesses with what they need most — customers.

“What you need to have a strong economy is a really strong and robust middle class,” he said.

In the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Cicilline has advocated for the swift return of troops from Afghanistan. “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the American people to build up other countries halfway around the world,” he told The Herald. “The time has come to redirect those resources back to the United States.” He added that America does not have an “honest partner” in Afghani President Hamid Karzai, noting that over 40 percent of U.S. aid to the country is stolen by the corrupt Afghani government.

Cicilline has also worked to protect retirees, opposing Republican attempts to privatize Social Security and Medicare. “These programs reflect our values,” he told The Herald, explaining that citizens who have paid into benefits programs for their entire lives did not deserve to see these programs cut while Congress offers subsidies to oil companies and tax breaks to millionaires.

Rhode Island is currently facing the prospect of cutting pensions for state employees, and Cicilline recognized that the system currently in place is unsustainable. He had attempted pension reform when he was mayor of Providence, though he was ultimately unsuccessful.

But in the eight years he served as mayor, he was successful in attracting $3 billion in investments to the city, bringing crime rates down to their lowest levels in 30 years, instituting a formal ethics code to a city with a history of corruption and creating an award-winning after-school program that is now being emulated in cities across the country, he said.

Despite these successes, 77 percent of residents polled in a University study blamed Cicilline for the city’s current budget woes. Though GoLocalProv indicates that Cicilline is now leading Republican candidates John Loughlin and Brendan Doherty in polls, he could still be facing a tough reelection campaign over the next year.

His prospects are not helped by Congress’ 9 percent approval rating, though Cicilline noted, “Based on what hasn’t been happening over the past 10 months, I’d say that’s a fair assessment.”

With this in mind, his reelection strategy is simple — “I’m going to keep doing the work that I was elected to do,” he told The Herald.

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