Alfonse D'Amato

The State of the Union: improving


The president’s State of the Union address gave a good picture of the nation’s economy and the positive direction America is heading. And it offered hope that some of the more contentious issues we face might finally be addressed.

The state of the economy is strong, with rising wages and bonuses putting real dollars into working middle class taxpayers’ pockets. Tax reform and regulatory relief are jump-starting business growth, and the stock market is hitting historic highs.

Unemployment — including in minority communities — is nearing historic lows. In addition, the lower corporate tax rate will leverage repatriated overseas tax dollars to help fund $1.5 trillion in needed infrastructure improvements to roads, bridges and airports, creating even more jobs.

President Trump’s trade policies are defending U.S. manufacturing jobs from unfair foreign competition and below-cost dumping of products into the American market. And he is pushing to reform our education system to focus more attention on vocational schools and employment training that will prepare young people for the good, well-paying jobs our growing economy is producing.

The U.S. is becoming more energy-independent. We’re now among the world’s largest energy producers. We’re exporting coal, oil and gas, which is good for our economy and our national security.

On immigration, the president made real concessions, offering a path to citizenship for 1.8 million “Dreamers” — not just the 600,000 covered by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program — in exchange for strengthening border security. His proposals are similar to those that have passed in the Senate before. If Democrats and Republicans in Congress now negotiate in good faith and reach for reasonable compromise, this issue can finally be resolved.

Overseas, we’ve defeated ISIS, and we’re finally standing up to North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear ambitions. We’re rebuilding our depleted military, giving our men and women in uniform the equipment and resources they need to protect us. And our retired veterans are getting better care and attention from a reformed Veterans Administration.

The president made lowering sky-high drug prices a big priority. Congress should cooperate with him to make prescription drugs more affordable. And Trump promised to step up efforts to combat the opioid crisis that is destroying lives and ravaging our communities.

None of these good things will come easily. They will all require constant attention from our national leaders. And there are other pressing issues that can’t just be repeatedly swept under the rug. The most urgent long-term priority should be strengthening our Social Security and Medicare systems. This effort, especially, will require a bipartisan approach if it is to succeed.

A presidential commission should be assembled, similar to the one chaired by then Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, on which Senators Patrick Moynihan and Bob Dole served, in the 1980s. That commission agreed to careful reforms of Social Security and Medicare that have kept them solvent for the past generation.

Today, Social Security and Medicare are again in need of modest changes to the retirement age to take into account longer life spans. With just some targeted adjustment, these important programs can be strengthened for the baby boom generation now entering retirement.

And there’s another growing problem that Washington should tackle. The most crushing financial burden facing millions of Americans today isn’t their mortgage or credit card debt — it’s their astronomical college loans. This trillion-dollar obligation is strangling our young people with debt they will spend a lifetime repaying. It’s time to pressure our colleges and universities to reduce their costs, and to withhold their generous government subsidies unless they bring the price of higher education into line with Americans’ ability to pay.

Here in New York, we need to get our priorities straight, too. We’re spending too much on high-priced school administrators and overlapping school districts, overpaid local police forces, and other government spending that’s way out of line with the rest of the nation.

In the meantime, our critical mass-transit system is struggling with old tracks, signals and equipment that cause constant delays for New Yorkers who depend on public transit to get them to work and school. Fixing infrastructure right here in our own backyard is just as important to the state of our union as what goes on in Washington. And just as with our national challenges, rebuilding New York will require the same bipartisanship and willingness to put people ahead of politics.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column?