When I first came to Congress in the 1960s, many constituents held a reliably consistent view of government: the less of it, the better. “All we want,” I must have heard hundreds of times, “is for the government to leave us alone.” Or, as lobbyists would often insist to me, “Get the government out of my business!”
Today, a member of Congress hears just as much about government from lobbyists and constituents, but their pleas are very different. “All we need,” the refrain now goes, “is this little tax break.” Or subsidy. Or contract. Or highway overpass. Or regulatory waiver. Or liability cap.
If you want to explain the skyrocketing number of lobbyists on Capitol Hill, this shift from rejecting government to embracing it is a good place to start. You could get a good argument going at any Washington cocktail party by asking just what created it—growth in the reach and activities of the federal government, or a growing belief among Americans that federal involvement can help solve some of their problems.
My sense, actually, is that it’s both. Nowadays more people want more things from Washington than they did four decades ago, and the federal government has grown accordingly. At the same time, the nation has grown more complex and so has its needs; simply put, the federal government has more to do now. The era of big government is not over.
The result is that all sorts of Americans want all sorts of things from Washington. There is a broad sense in the nation now that what Congress does—or does not do—can have a major impact on people's lives and fortunes. It should come as no surprise that so many people try to influence what happens on Capitol Hill.
Overall, this interest is healthy. Even if we don't always recognize it, it matters to most of us who gets to sit on the Supreme Court, or what shape a new Medicaid bill takes, or how the health care system gets regulated. Congress needs to hear from us on such questions, and it usually does. Indeed, on these big issues, so many letters, telephones calls and e-mails are generated and so many different groups are elbowing each other for influence that, in the end, the impact of any one lobbying effort is muted.
What ought to concern us, though, is the little stuff: the regulatory tweaks and legal nudges that get slipped into bills because they help one interest group or another—usually at the expense of some rival interest group, or of taxpayers in general.
Lobbyists in Washington spend their days trying to secure benefits for their clients that most Americans don’t even know exist: waivers under the immigration law, a piece of the radio spectrum, special tax credits, extra protection for patent rights or extensions of intellectual property rights or relief from pension obligations...The list is endless.
There is nothing nefarious about this. Lobbyists do not dream up the problems they come to Congress about; they're representing real people facing real dilemmas that cannot be solved without government help. Indeed, trying to influence the actions of government is what our system is about—that is why we have representatives in Congress.
The challenge to our system comes when one group of people—in this case, those who can afford to hire skillful lobbyists—carves out an advantage for themselves over those who don't have as much money, and then use it to pursue their goals far from the light of day.
You could argue, I suppose, that the only sure way to reduce the influence of lobbyists is to reduce the need for lobbyists by curtailing the federal government's reach into American society. But this is unlikely to happen.
Instead, it seems to me that our challenge as a nation is to find a way of making the playing field more level—that is, of making sure that the thoughts and concerns of the ordinary citizen carry just as much weight in Congress as those of the expensively clad lobbyists who consider Capitol Hill their second home. What is at stake, after all, is representative government itself.
Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University, Indiana Pennsylvania; member of Congress for 34 years.
Need Housing, Schools
A copy of the following letter was received by the Gazette.
December 6, 2005
Queens West Development
633 Third Avenue, 36th Floor
New York, NY 10017
Dear Mr. Federbush:
Thank you for taking the time to meet with the Long Island City community to discuss the future of development at Queens West and of our neighborhood.
As you know, Long Island City is in the midst of an economic, cultural, and residential renaissance. With unparalleled views of Manhattan, easy access to public transportation, and an amazing array of cultural institutions, our neighborhood is already a great place to live, work and raise a family. It also has more potential than perhaps anywhere else in the entire world.
Over the last few years, change has come rapidly to Long Island City, but what has happened to date is but a precursor to the changes yet to come. We have already begun to reclaim the Queens waterfront, improving shoreline access, renovating and creating parkland, building new schools, and supporting vibrant cultural institutions. We now have an opportunity to define what our neighborhood, and our City, will be in the years to come.
As we build a new City in a new century, it is essential that we keep faith with the values that have made us who we are. Supporting and expanding a healthy middle class and all those working so hard to get into the middle class is central to those values. In order to ensure that our neighborhood remains a place where the middle class can not only survive, but thrive, I have outlined four of my top concerns below. I am looking forward to working with you very closely to address these concerns and move forward together.
1. More middle-income and affordable housing
As we build our City’s future along the Queens waterfront, it is essential that the neighborhood we build together be home to all different kinds of New Yorkers. As Long Island City grows, we must make sure that new development does not push out those who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, if not generations. The 80 units of senior housing being built at Riverview Gardens are a commendable start, but we can and must do more at Queens West. In fact, Queens West affords us an extraordinary opportunity to set an example for the entire City in regards to middle-income and affordable housing.
It’s plain to see that right now, the lack of middle-income and affordable housing is squeezing the middle class and those struggling to get into the middle class–pushing some out of our City altogether. I’ve heard from people in my neighborhood, all over Queens and throughout the City who can barely make their current rent or mortgage payments, and are thinking about leaving. We can and must do better. A schoolteacher married to a police officer who together make less than $100,000 a year ought to be able to afford a decent apartment in our City, and not have to commute in from the suburbs. We can improve this situation considerably by committing to build a substantial amount of middle-income and affordable housing right here on the Long Island City waterfront.
2. More home ownership opportunities
All those who are willing to work hard and do right should have access to the American Dream. If you work hard and play by the rules, you should have the opportunity to own a home in a neighborhood with great schools that is safe, clean and affordable–a neighborhood that you can truly be proud of.
Home ownership makes people stakeholders in their communities, giving them a sense of responsibility and command over their lives and their surroundings.
A home is also the most important wealth-building asset.
My family came to Queens more than 100 years ago and put down roots in the community. We must create more opportunities for families to do the same right here in Long Island City. The success of CityLights shows that people are eager to purchase homes in this area; we must now commit to doing more to encourage home ownership at Queens West, including home ownership by middle-class families. Increased home ownership will further enrich the fabric of the neighborhood and enhance the quality of life for everyone. I look forward to working with you to ensure that new buildings at Queens West offer substantial opportunities for home ownership.
3. Expanded elementary school and a new middle school and library
At the heart of every great neighborhood is a great school. I am very pleased to hear that after years of hard work by many of us in the community, the lease has been finalized and construction begun on the first round of expansion at P.S. 78. Thank you for your hard work to make this expansion a reality. With this expansion underway, we ensure that families can move to Long Island City knowing their kids’ education is in good hands.
However, the expansion of P.S. 78 is only the first step. Although a commitment has been made to building a junior high school, there are families who need our help now. Whether that means further expansion at P.S.78 or an expedited building process for the new middle school, we must take action very soon. Otherwise, families will be wrongly persuaded to move out of the neighborhood when their kids graduate from P.S. 78. Rather, we should be encouraging families to take root in Long Island City. That means providing a strong junior high school within walking distance of their homes.
We also must soon begin construction on a new library at Queens West, for which I have been very happy to secure $2 million in City funding. When I was growing up, every day after school I walked across the street from P.S.11 in Woodside to the public library. It was there that I learned about the world, expanded my horizons and realized I could be anything I wanted to be.
We owe nothing less to the children of Long Island City. In fact, improving our schools, expanding libraries and increasing after-school activities have been my top priorities since being elected in 2001. I am very proud to have co-founded youth baseball and basketball leagues with the YMCA in Long Island City, and I have been a strong supporter of dynamic after-school programs like Chess-in-the-Schools.
4. Continued environmental clean-up while protecting the health and well-being of area residents
In order for Long Island City to reach its full potential, we must ensure that the health and safety of all neighborhood residents is secure. That means we must continue to focus on environmental remediation efforts and make sure the toxic fumes that permeated the neighborhood last year never return. We must remain fully committed to ensuring that every single child at P.S. 78 and every single resident of our neighborhood is safe as environmental remediation continues at the Queens West site. The tenting of the Avalon site has been a strong step forward and I thank you for your cooperation in that matter.
As we move forward, Long Island City residents are entitled to regular, complete informational updates about the environmental and health impacts of this remediation work. This should include written updates to all Long Island City residents on a monthly basis, summarizing the work that has been completed to date and updating the neighborhood on any changes in air quality, health-related issues, and the remediation efforts in general.
As we reclaim and rebuild our waterfront, we build monuments to New York’s future–creating a City where someday soon, people will come from near and far to enjoy our waterfront, from Newtown Creek to the Triborough Bridge.
Filled with parks, libraries, and good schools, the Queens waterfront will be a place for people to bike, jog, or simply relax and enjoy the view. But above all, it will be a place to come to live and to raise a family–a place where people will move at a young age, establish roots and stay for generations.
It is my honor and privilege to walk up the steps of City Hall each day to make this dream a reality for both long-time residents of our community, and for those who are new to Long Island City. Every New Yorker deserves to live in a neighborhood they can afford and be proud of. By building more middle-income and affordable housing, creating opportunities for home ownership, opening new schools and libraries and protecting the health of our community, we keep faith with those core values that make us who we are as a people and as a City.
We have an opportunity to make Long Island City a model neighborhood, one that is vibrant, diverse and safe. I look forward to working together toward that goal.
Eric Gioia represents the 26th City Council District, which includes the developing neighborhood known as Queens West along the East River waterfront in Long Island City.