Hustle to the Holidays

Dear Friend,

This past week, while many folks were hustling to shovel snow, finish Christmas shopping, and get a fire going in the fireplace, Congress was rushing to avert another potential government shutdown and wrap up its work for the year.

First, the good news. Congress did, in fact, prevent a government shutdown from happening. That’s important because the last shutdown hurt local employers, impacted the finances of local families, and created massive uncertainty.

Now, the bad news. Congress averted the shutdown by passing yet another short-term spending bill (known as a “continuing resolution” or CR for short). Unfortunately, that’s a raw deal for federal agencies because under a CR, they are limited in their ability to shift funding priorities. And it’s a raw deal for taxpayers because it means agencies aren’t able to pursue long term contracts or do the type of planning that can ensure that dollars get used as efficiently as possible.  

Congress needs to stop kicking the can when it comes to making decisions about funding the government. No family and no business would make decisions that only deal with the budget for a few months a time. Lurching from potential shutdown to potential shutdown takes our eyes away from passing laws that can help create good-paying jobs, provide quality education, and provide a secure retirement for everybody.

Congress needs to make tough decisions – not rely on gimmicks. It should pass real budgets and real spending bills – not rely on can-kicking. That’s what I’ll keep pushing for in the months ahead.

It’s been a busy end to the year so read on for some of the recent legislative highlights.  

Supporting New Medical Research

There was some good progress made in other areas in the past two weeks. I recently joined a number of my colleagues in supporting the 21st Century CURES Act that President Obama will sign into law. This legislation provides critical investments in National Institute of Health projects as well as the Vice President’s Cancer Moonshot program. These investments will hopefully lead to new progress against cancer and other diseases like Alzheimer’s that have impacted so many families. I’m excited to see how our nation’s top scientists and researchers use these new tools, and I’m pleased that this bill got strong support from Democrats and Republicans.

The bill also helps us in the fight against heroin and opioid abuse that has touched too many families and communities in our region. Whether you live in a city or small town this scourge has left a lot of folks hurting. This new law can help stop its spread by giving states like Washington a chance to win grants for things like expanding treatment and recovery programs or implementing prevention activities. These are the sorts of things that Congress can accomplish when both sides work together. I’m hopeful there will be more of that in 2017.  

Fixing a Mental Health Crisis 

We face constant reminders of the extraordinary unmet needs in providing adequate care for folks going through mental health or substance abuse crises. We see it in increased crime as too many law enforcement officers are asked to do the jobs of mental health professionals. We see it on our streets, with increased homelessness and a substantial strain on our social safety net. We see it in local hospitals that lack adequate behavioral health capacity and face the impossible choice of discharging someone in mental crisis or holding that person in an emergency department for weeks on end. Perhaps most importantly, we see it in families struggling to care for someone they love.

Generally, health experts believe that, to meet the needs of people in crisis, communities should have about 40 to 60 inpatient mental health beds per 100,000 individuals. According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, America has just 11.7 beds per 100,000 people. Washington state is even farther behind at 10.2 beds per 100,000 with even worse statistics at local and county levels. The need for more inpatient beds and quality mental health facilities has never been starker.

As a result, I’ve put forth bipartisan legislation that seeks to fix the problem. It would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to provide loans and loan guarantees to local entities interested in building more facilities that would provide inpatient beds to these folks. A law like this could support efforts like the one we’ve seen in the South Sound between MultiCare and CHI Franciscan to build a 120 bed hospital.

I’m going to continue pushing for this legislation next year as well.  

Improving the VA

I’ve always said if you serve your country, we should have your back. In the aftermath of the wait-time scandals at the VA, we saw a number of good proposals offered to the agency regarding how to fix things. But proposals for improvement aren’t sufficient without follow-through.

That’s why last year, I asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to do a full management review to evaluate the VA Healthcare system structure, systems, and services.

The initial GAO study was recently released and presents a harsh assessment of the failures of the VA to take action. The report noted that reform of the system was essential to getting our veterans the care they deserve but that recommendations for improvement were often not acted upon.

In response, I’ve partnered with Rep. Newhouse to introduce the VA Management Alignment Act, which would require the VA secretary to put forward a real blueprint for making needed changes. It would require the VA to lay out, in detail, the responsibilities of VA managers and the paths to ensure that the healthcare system is getting the necessary and overdue updates. And it proposes a clearer approach to accountability so we can finally take care of these problems.

You can read more about the bill from an article in Stars and Stripes here.

Approving legislation to support our troops

I’ve also been hard at work on behalf of our servicemembers too. I was glad to see Democrats and Republicans come together to pass a bill that helps us maintain the top fighting force in the world. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorizes funding levels and programs for our military so I’m happy the President will be signing it into law. It includes a few important initiatives like giving the men and women fighting on our behalf a 2.1 percent pay raise to support their families. It also ensures veterans won’t face sky-rocketing out-of-pocket medical bills for care. Finally, the NDAA continues key construction projects at local military installations and strengthens our Naval fleet so our country can remain secure.

Honoring a Conservation Leader

Before we broke for the holidays, Washington state lawmakers also came together to pass a bill to honor the work of a conservation leader. Throughout his service as a Governor and US Senator from our state, Dan Evans accomplished many things. Including among them has been the impact he’s had in promoting conservation and the outdoor economy in our state. Governor Evans has always embraced the power of the outdoors to bring people together while at the same time creating economic opportunities for communities in our state. He’s been a vocal champion for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. He’s promoted our parks and trails. In short, he’s been a difference-maker.

To mark his work, I was honored to join my colleagues in sponsoring – and passing – legislation to rename the Olympic National Park Wilderness the Daniel J. Evans Wilderness. Thanks to Senator Maria Cantwell for taking the lead on this bill!

Celebrating Computer Science Education Week

I also celebrated Computer Science Education Week. The week serves as an important reminder of the need to invest in quality computer science education. America has always been at the forefront of technological innovation that creates quality jobs. To stay ahead of the pack, we need to keep our kids excited about discovering the cool things they can do by learning computer science.

But, we’ve got work to do. It’s estimated that there are half a million open technology jobs in the United States today, and that number is projected to more than double within the next 4 years. On average, these jobs pay 50 percent more than the average private-sector job. In fact, one recent analysis of 26 million job postings found that nearly half of all the jobs in the top quartile in pay require some computer science knowledge or coding skills. What’s more, as technological advancement continues at an ever-increasing pace, computer science skills are becoming increasingly relevant to our economy, national and cybersecurity, and healthcare system.

Even so, computer science is often missing from American K-12 education. According to recent estimates, just 40 percent of K-12 schools report offering even a single computer science course, and only 32 states – including Washington – currently allow students to count computer science toward core high school graduation requirements.

This means that, as a nation, we are missing out on engaging too many students. Education is the door to opportunity, and more needs to be done to ensure that all students can access that door – giving them a chance to be part of a future workforce. I’ve worked on this as a member of the Appropriations Committee and have sponsored legislation to try to encourage and strengthen computer science education.

But outside of our nation’s capital, there are some cool things happening. Have you ever wanted to learn more about coding? Now’s the chance! Hour of Code is a global movement that allows anyone, anywhere to start learning how to code in one hour. No experience necessary. It’s a great tool for teachers to get the next generation of computer scientists engaged. With 162 tutorials to choose from, there is something for everyone -- my personal favorite, Star Wars!

There are great initiatives right in our own backyard. As part of National Computer Science Education week, I was excited to highlight excellent work that is already happening in our neck of the woods. Girls Who Code is a national nonprofit working to close the gender gap across the technology sector. After school programs for middle and high school girls are right around the corner: North Mason High School in Belfair and the School of Industrial Design Engineering and Art in Tacoma both have programs. Thanks for promoting the aspirations of girls in our communities!

Acknowledging the loss of a hero

As frequent readers of my newsletter know, I usually end these notes to you with a quick overview of what I’ve been up to in our district. In recent weeks, I certainly had my share of events (including a terrific visit to Bainbridge Island High School and an opportunity to watch Neah Bay High School win the state football championship).

But rather than diving into all of that, I feel compelled to end with a note about the most difficult event that many folks in our region shared.

On Friday, I attended the memorial honoring the life and service of Officer Reginald “Jake” Gutierrez of the Tacoma Police Department, who was killed in the line of duty on November 30. He was answering a call to aid the victims of domestic violence and, tragically, lost his life.

Like most folks in our region, my heart goes out to Jake’s fiancée, children, and grandchild, who lost him in service to his community and his country.

Those who witnessed the shooting of Officer Gutierrez stated that his sacrifice saved the lives of those around him. His last action was to shout a warning to those in and around the house – his partner, the suspect’s family, and their landlord – to leave the house to safety. His final moments are a testament to his selflessness, his bravery, and his commitment to helping others.

Jake gave the ultimate sacrifice as a public servant and protector of our community’s safety. Prior to leaving DC, I submitted a statement into the Congressional Record to recognize Officer Gutierrez and his family. I hope you’ll join me in keeping his family in your thoughts and prayers.

As always, it’s an honor to serve on your behalf.

Derek Kilmer