story by Ryan Saylor
President Barack Obama delivered his fifth annual State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night (Jan. 28) in Washington, and Arkansas members of the House and Senate are responding to the President's speech.
The speech was wide-ranging, touching on economic inequality, re-shoring of jobs from foreign countries to America, and conflicts and dilemmas around the world.
Obama pushed for passage of a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, saying it would provide the income needed for a parent working full-time to provide an income for his or her family. Even if Congress does not act, Obama said he would use an executive order to raise wages for federal contracted workers.
"And as a chief executive, I intend to lead by example. Profitable corporations like Costco see higher wages as the smart way to boost productivity and reduce turnover. We should too," he said. "In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty."
President and CEO Matthew Shay of the National Retail Federation said raising the minimum wage would do nothing but "create minimum opportunities.”
“If you want to create minimum opportunities, then raise the minimum wage. We welcome the president’s focus on the economy and jobs, but a minimum wage hike runs counter to that goal. Raising the minimum wage would place a new burden on employers at a time when national policy should be focused on removing barriers to job creation, not creating new regulations or mandates. It’s simple math – if the cost of hiring goes up, hiring goes down."
He went on to highlight how few individuals working in the United States today are actually classified as minimum wage.
“Fewer than 5 percent of hourly workers are paid the minimum wage. It’s really a starting wage that allows teen-agers or others with little job experience to enter the workforce. A mandated hike in labor costs would negatively impact businesses that employ people in entry-level jobs and ultimately hurt the people it is intended to help. This isn’t economic theory – when the minimum wage went up in 2009, half a million part-time workers lost their jobs. That’s a risk our economy can’t afford to take.”
Obama also said he would direct Treasury Secretary Jack Lew to create a new retirement plan called MyRA, a way for individuals without an employer-sponsored retirement plan to invest in safe, government-backed debt and eventually roll the item over into a traditional IRA.
"Let’s do more to help Americans save for retirement. Today, most workers don’t have a pension. A Social Security check often isn’t enough on its own," Obama said. "And while the stock market has doubled over the last five years, that doesn’t help folks who don’t have 401ks. That’s why, tomorrow, I will direct the Treasury to create a new way for working Americans to start their own retirement savings: MyRA. It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. MyRA guarantees a decent return with no risk of losing what you put in."
At the same time, he encouraged Congress to do more to encourage saving for retirement.
"And if this Congress wants to help, work with me to fix an upside-down tax code that gives big tax breaks to help the wealthy save, but does little to nothing for middle-class Americans. Offer every American access to an automatic IRA on the job, so they can save at work just like everyone in this chamber can."
The President also urged Congress to fund transportation and infrastructure needs, using money saved from his non-specific tax plan to finish planned projects.
"Moreover, we can take the money we save with this transition to tax reform to create jobs rebuilding our roads, upgrading our ports, unclogging our commutes – because in today’s global economy, first-class jobs gravitate to first-class infrastructure. We’ll need Congress to protect more than three million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer. But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible."
The American Truckers Associations wasted no time responding to Obama's statements on transportation and infrastructure.
“While we appreciate President Obama making reference to the need for infrastructure investment, we remain disappointed in the continued lack of specificity when he discusses funding,” ATA President and CEO Bill Graves said in a press release. “While it is critically important to the nation that Congress and the administration come together on a multiyear highway bill this year, we believe that until the administration puts forward a serious, user-based funding proposal we will risk going over the Highway Trust Fund 'fiscal cliff' in the near term and be woefully underfunded to meet the longer term needs of the nation.”
ATA Chairman Phil Byrd, himself a trucking executive, attended the speech and said the plan lacked detail.
“It was an honor to attend the State of the Union, but the president’s proposal was sorely lacking in details and comes up short of what the nation needs to maintain our economic competitiveness. Trucks use our roads and bridges to move more than 70% of the nation's freight and if do not address our infrastructure deficit the system will soon become a drag on our economic recovery and hinder our future growth.”
Obama's speech also dove into the issue of bringing jobs back to America from countries such as China, which had seen an influx of millions of jobs during the first part of the new century. The trend is changing as fuel and labor costs have risen, leading some companies to return manufacturing and other types of jobs to the United States.
"(F)or the first time in over a decade, business leaders around the world have declared that China is no longer the world’s number one place to invest; America is. That’s why I believe this can be a breakthrough year for America. After five years of grit and determined effort, the United States is better-positioned for the 21st century than any other nation on Earth."
Progress depends upon Congress and the President finding middle ground, Obama said.
"In the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together. Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want – for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead."
Obama reminded Americans that combat troops had left Iraq and about 60,000 had already departed a conflict the administration has been attempting to wind down since Obama became president in 2009.
"After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future. If the Afghan government signs a security agreement that we have negotiated, a small force of Americans could remain in Afghanistan with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counterterrorism operations to pursue any remnants of al Qaeda. For while our relationship with Afghanistan will change, one thing will not: our resolve that terrorists do not launch attacks against our country."
Members of the Arkansas Congressional delegation quickly responded to Obama's speech. Following are the complete texts of each member's response to the State of the Union.
• U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.:
"Overall, I’m disappointed with the President’s State of the Union address because he was heavy on rhetoric, but light on specifics about how we can move our country forward. I’ve always said that I’ll work with the President when I think he’s right, but oppose him when I think he’s wrong. That’s why I’ve opposed his policies on gun control, the Keystone Pipeline, military action in Syria, regulatory overreach on our farms — to name a few — and why I’ll continue to oppose his agenda when it’s bad for Arkansas and our country. I had hoped he would strike a more bipartisan tone because, if recent history shows anything, red vs. blue is dead end politics. We must work together if we want to get things done and strengthen our economy."
• U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.:
"President Obama’s policies have resulted in 5 million Americans losing their health insurance under Obamacare, a stalled economic recovery, high unemployment, and increased income inequality. These are problems he created. We need to ask ourselves, are we better off today?
“The President continues to ignore the results and consequences of the failed policies of his presidency. While he is calling for a ‘year of action,’ his intention is clear – to circumvent Congress. Pursuing executive actions to push through his agenda is a troubling trend. The American people sent their elected officials to Washington to represent their needs and the President should not ignore their voices.
“Our country is made up of a resilient workforce that wants a hand-up, not a hand-out. We need to promote policies that will strengthen our economy, encourage innovation and endorse methods to help our businesses expand and grow in order to put hardworking Americans back to work. Congress is ready to act. Awaiting action on Senate Majority Leader Reid's desk are dozens of job-creating, commonsense bills.
“As Arkansas families are finding themselves cash-strapped because of increasing regulations including the compliance with higher premiums, deductibles and canceled health care coverage under Obamacare, the President continues to pick winners and losers and decides who has to follow the law. Congress is ready to act to institute real reforms and that begins with dismantling the Affordable Care Act and creating a health care system that is accessible, fair, affordable and flexible.
“I’m ready to act on the behalf of all Arkansans, and all Americans, to institute real reforms to ensure a social safety net for those most in need, create opportunities for workers, address our ever-growing debt, and restore our standing in the world. I call on the President to start solving these problems instead of creating new ones.”
• U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle:
"Tonight we heard more of the same empty promises from President Obama. But what we didn't hear was an apology for Obamacare, his unworkable law that's making healthcare more expensive and life harder for Arkansans. Real solutions won't come from more of President Obama's big government policies, Arkansans deserve a leader who will fight to get government out of the way, cut our deficit, and rein in spending."
• U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro:
“Tonight Arkansans heard from the President about his priorities for our nation. Unfortunately, he continues to avoid addressing the biggest problem holding back economic growth – the ever-growing debt crisis. It is sad that President Obama continues to insist that it makes sense to rush ahead with trillions of dollars in new entitlement spending while Social Security and Medicare remain in fiscal distress and the national debt is hurtling toward unsustainable levels increasing economic uncertainty. “
• U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock:
“The President promises to make this year one of action, but getting things done will require more than just words. In his State of the Union address, he again invited critics of Obamacare to suggest ways we can improve our health care system, but 50 days later, I’m still waiting for his response to my letter detailing nine key proposals. On this issue and others, it’s time for President Obama to step up and work with Congress to make things happen. My colleagues and I in the House are also willing to work with him to grow the economy and spur job creation, by approving critical infrastructure projects like the Keystone pipeline and passing tax reform that makes our code fairer, flatter and simpler. With so many Americans hurt by Obamacare or struggling to find work, I hope President Obama means what he says and will turn his words into real action.”
• U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers:
“Tonight, President Obama called for a year of action and asked whether we in Congress are going to ‘help or hinder’ America’s progress. Unfortunately, I’m afraid our nation can’t take much more of the top-down, government-expanding ‘action’ and “progress” for which he’s calling. I know for certain that Arkansas’s Third District can’t; I hear it from you, my constituents, day after day.
“You have told me you need policies that allow you to hold the keys to your success instead of promoting the status quo, that grow the economy and not the federal government, that enable you to create jobs rather than make doing so a disincentive, and that empower you to achieve your goals and the American dream without holding them back with red tape. That’s what we’ve been working on in the House, and that’s the America to which I’m committed. I will continue to work with my colleagues – and hopefully President Obama – to find solutions to these problems – the problems you face – and to create more opportunity and a stronger America.”