Politics Blog

U.S. Rep. Larsen visits Herald, talks minimum wage, immigration, TPP

U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, met with the Herald's editorial board on Friday, Jan. 24, and this blogger sat in.

With the upper limits on spending set for this fiscal year and next, Larsen gave the board the impression that Congress could move beyond the gridlock of 2013 and concentrate on getting a few things done -- it could even spend some money, again within those already-agreed-upon limits.

The whole meeting, which lasted about half an hour, was framed as a preview of President Obama's State of the Union address, set for 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Obama, like his predecessor, doesn't clue the Congress in on what he will discuss at the SOTU, Larsen said. Even so, Larsen had some guesses. Here's a rundown of topics the 7-term congressman brought up:

Minimum wage. The president is likely to mention on Tuesday the push among Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage. HR 1010, cosponsored by Larsen, would raise the wage to $10.10 an hour. It is now $7.25 an hour. Washington state has the highest minimum wage in the U.S., $9.32 per hour.

Larsen said critics of raising the minimum wage falsely assume that is the Dems' only solution to the slow pace of economic recovery. He also mentioned extending unemployment benefits as a way to simply maintain the recovery's status quo.

Other opportunities for economic growth can be found in transportation.

Transportation. Congress is working on extending the surface transportation bill before the end of this fiscal year on Sept. 30, when the current transportation program expires. Larsen is working on two separate transportation bills that could be incorporated into the massive surface transportation bill:

-- Safe Bridges Act. This bill would set up a federal fund to pay for repair or replacement of inadequate bridges, such as the Skagit River Bridge on Interstate 5 that collapsed in May 2013.

-- TIGER CUBS Act. This bill Larsen introduced himself. It would divert some of the money for major transportation projects in big cities to the biggest projects in America's smaller cities -- pop. 10,000 to 50,000. This would be a new pot from which Ferndale and Lynden could draw to get big, expensive projects finished -- the type of projects that would be hard to fund by cobbling together multiple smaller funding sources.

Trans-Pacific Partnership. This may or may not come up in the SOTU. Larsen discussed the TPP in response to a question from the editorial board.

The issue was brought up in the Politics Blog a week ago because Occupy Bellingham organized protests over the potential the partnership has to weaken environmental and labor laws, and promote corporate interests.

Larsen is down with the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

The TPP is a NAFTA-style trade agreement between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries, including Mexico, Japan, China, Australia, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The group of nations makes up "the largest market in the world," Larsen told the editorial board. "They're emerging into what they would define as middle class."

The alternative to signing onto TPP is to "play that hit and miss game" of trading with each country individually. "I prefer we not do that," Larsen said, "because we make a lot of great things people will buy."

Larsen said the environmentalists' condemnation of the partnership is based on a misreading of the TPP documents currently available.

"The United States is going in with the highest (environmental) standard," Larsen said. It's countries such as Malaysia and Brunei, he said, that are advocating for low environmental standards.

"We have a chance to pull these countries up," Larsen said.

Immigration. This is another issue likely to be raised by the president at the SOTU. In any case, Larsen predicted progress on immigration before anything substantive gets done with TPP.

Larsen said he expected in the next week the Republicans would put forward four bills that would be seen by Democrats as watered-down versions of the DREAM Act.  Larsen called the Republican proposal "DREAM Act Lite."

The Republicans wouldn't create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but would establish a pathway to "some sort of legalized status," Larsen said.

"It is a step forward," he said. "It builds the momentum" toward eventually enacting new immigration laws.

He tempered the editorial board's anticipation of the Republican proposal.

"I think it's going to fall a little short of where Democrats are, and frankly where most of the public is."