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New York Rep. Tonko previews State of the Union address

New York Congressman Paul Tonko
Lucas Willard

President Joe Biden will try to motivate fellow Democrats and win over skeptical Republicans during his State of the Union address tonight. It comes during early negotiations over raising the nation’s debt limit, and as the new GOP House Majority ramps up investigations into the administration and the president’s family. But can a divided Congress advance a joint domestic agenda? New York Congressman Paul Tonko is hopeful. The Capital Region Democrat from the 20th district spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus.

I'm hoping to hear the President encouraging what was accomplished in the 117th session of Congress to continue. Obviously, great investments in the economy, and in the nation’s security with the Rescue Plan, the CHIPS and Science Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act, and then the CHIPS and Science Act and Inflation Reduction Act. So, all of that makes major investments in an innovation economy, a precision economy, taking us down the path of clean energy, growing jobs, union jobs, and driving down costs, and providing work opportunities for the public. The numbers came out last weekend, last Friday, from the Department of Labor. And what we have is good news, again, with a drop to 3.4% in unemployment, and over 517,000 jobs created during the month of January. So, we want to keep that good news flowing and investing. As the President has said so many times over, and I hope he will emphasize this this evening, that we're going to grow the economy from the middle out, which I think is a good thing to do. In so doing, he'll probably established the contrast between the leadership in the House, which has gone through now roughly a couple of weeks, and very telling as a contract and stick to his plan to grow the American economy.

Well, as you mentioned, a lot of the priorities that President Biden highlighted in his first two years in office, those were passed through a different Congress. Now that House Republicans are in charge of your chamber, how likely do you think it is that his agenda will move forward this year?

I'm hoping that we can continue in a robust fashion to implement those bills that were signed into law. They're very worthy and important investments into today's economy. So, I hope that continues. But you know, you do strike an alarm with that question. I am concerned because the first bill that came out of the 118th session of Congress in the House, was to dismantle the plan for IRS to make certain that we do have the staffing numbers, so that you can get tax returns back to the American public, giving them the dollars that are owed them in more rapid fashion. But also, creating the infrastructure, the human infrastructure, of accountants and lawyers that will take on these multi-tiered corporations who are evading all sorts of tax liability, and the upper wealth sections of the economic ladder that are really not paying their fair share of taxes. So, we need that talent, we need that infrastructure to take on those who are not responding in terms of paying their fair share. That whole dismantling, was a very telling sign to be the first bill that comes out of this session of the House.

What kind of reception do you think he'll get in this joint session?

I think that there will be an attempt to start off bipartisan. I would hope there is. There will be plenty of time for disagreements but hopefully dialogue will continue. But from what I see there is a stark difference already between the majority running the House, and where we were as the leaders as the Democratic majority. For instance, they're talking about imposing a sales tax across the country. That will be very painful for middle income families and lower income families to absorb. It's an unfair sort of approach. And they're also talking about impacts of the EITC, the Earned Income Tax Credit, which offers working families that may not have deductions, that opportunity to get a tax cut. So, these are the programs that will grow the economy from the middle out, and they're already under attack and, you know, feared too, concerns that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid will be on the chopping block because as we try to resolve the debt limit issue in Washington, we need to make certain that America pays her bills. I think American families know that quite well. There are consequences when you don't pay your bills and pay them on time. There will be interests that are accrued, that will make those bills more expensive. There are consequences that could reduce our credit rating. So as a nation, we would suffer if we don't pay those bills on time, and already incorporated discussions here are cutting into Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security. All of that could be devastating to the economy. So, I'm hoping that reason will prevail, that we will move along to develop a budget by April to make certain that we can then have several months of negotiations. But that work has to begin, and we do need to know that we'll be paying the bills on behalf of this country so that our economy is not weakened.

Do you plan to bring a special guest to the address this year?

We do have a special guest that will be coming with us to the State of the Union. We have reached out to the Capitol District Area Labor Federation, their Executive Director, Mark Emanatian will be our guest at the State of the Union message.

And one more thing. For people who have watched the State of the Union in years past sometimes they see you on the aisle there when the President comes in for the speech. If you're able to get President Biden's ear for a moment, do you have anything that you will particularly highlight with him?

Well, of course the clean energy agenda. Making certain we combat climate change and that we invest in this clean energy agenda is very important. You know, we in this Capital Region, the Greater Capital Region have the opportunity to be the epicenter of offshore wind production, with the manufacturing of the foundations to towers and hopefully even the fins of those wind turbines that will be a huge source of energy supply in the realm of clean energy.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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