While Congress evaluated the $1.1 trillion bipartisan omnibus appropriations bill on Tuesday and ultimately approved it, U.S. Rep. Glenn Thompson took time to look ahead at 2014 and provide insight on what he expects to see, and what he hopes for, in the new year.
The bill, which provides funding through the end of the federal fiscal year in September, returns Congress to regular order on appropriations for the first time in four year.
While Thompson said he expected the bill, which was the result of negotiations by a joint House and Senate committee, to pass both chambers of Congress this week, he said it's only one step toward a broader goal.
"I guess, if there's really a theme, it's just economic prosperity," Thompson said of his goals in 2014. "What am I looking for? At the top of that list would be jobs. We need to focus on the economy."
To that end, Thompson pointed to some measures he believes will help achieve that goal.
"First of all, the farm bill," Thompson said. "It looks like it's on track. One in seven Pennsylvanians owe their jobs to agriculture in Pennsylvania either directly or indirectly."
He noted legislation to improve career training programs as another important stepping stone to bolstering the economy.
"Another one is really to get the Senate to take action on training legislation," Thompson said, citing the SKILLS Act, passed by the House but currently in committee in the Senate. "That's where the jobs are, in training and technical education."
Thompson noted the appropriations bill increases funding for career and technical education by approximately $53 million.
Thompson also pointed to energy security as a means of improving the economy while reducing national vulnerability.
"It really is time to close the valve to the Middle East," Thompson said. "We're really pushing for the Keystone XL pipeline. It's really just increasing and securing energy production domestically."
According to Thompson, another means of improving the economy can be found in improving the tax code.
"I would say tax reform. It's long overdue," Thompson said. "We need to get the tax system simplified so America can become competitive globally again. Get business to return, possibly repatriate, here."
Thompson also believes education improvements are needed to produce students who leave school ready for the workforce.
He specifically pointed to the Student Success Act, a nearly 600-page collection of reforms aimed at increasing educational oversight, giving state and local education bodies more autonomy and providing more access to performance information to Congress.
"We have passed that in the House," Thompson said. "We're waiting on the Senate version so we can reconcile them."
As for specific reforms, Thompson cited Title I, which is focused on aiding schools in economically disadvantaged areas, as "something I will continue to fight for."
He also pointed to the No Child Left Behind Act, which includes requirements for benchmarks and testing to gauge student proficiency in core subjects, saying, "It's past time we do that."
Overall, he said his philosophy is about allowing schools to prepare students for the future.
"Really, removing some of the barriers to schools on education," Thompson added, "giving students the skills they need to enter the jobs in today's workforce."
Thompson also hopes to look at sustainability for safety net programs, specifically Social Security and Medicare.
"Both of those programs are on a track to insolvency," he said. "If we don't fix them, both of those programs will become financially insolvent."
Program accountability is also on his radar, specifically the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides block grants for states to administer their own welfare programs, and a recent bill he sponsored extending the period after enlistment veterans can continue to receive government health benefits.
"Basically oversight. That is a very important Congressional duty and one that I take very seriously," Thompson said. "Once legislation is passed, it's important to have oversight to make sure those laws are implemented correctly. I work very hard to ensure those laws are implemented to get the most benefit."
While he will be watching how extending the period government health care is offered to veterans is implemented, he'll also be looking at how government and health care for the general public intersect.
"Another priority, certainly, is health care," Thompson said. "Fixing some of the glaring flaws of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), pushing for a replacement bill because that's the best improvement."
For senior citizens receiving government health benefits, Thompson said he'll be watching what happens with the "doc fix" for Medicare Part B, a goal that both parties have introduced bills to attain. At issue is how much doctors are paid by Medicare, which is calculated through the program's sustainable growth rate reimbursement formula. The formulary has resulted in steep cuts to payments to doctors.
He also said he will be pushing for passage of a bill he authored, the Special Needs Trust Fairness Act, which deals with the treatment of revocable trusts as it pertains to qualification requirements for Medicaid. The measure would exempt trusts set up by special needs individuals from counting as resources available. At present, such trusts must be set up by someone else for the benefit of the individual rather than by the individual, regardless of whether he or she is capable of setting up such a trust themselves.
"I see movement there in the Senate," Thompson said. "I see great hope on that happening this year."
Meanwhile, Thompson holds out hope that further deficit reduction is possible.
"We are $17 trillion in debt," he noted. "The fact that we are returning to regular order on appropriations for the first time in years certainly helps. Some of my colleagues in the House have never participated in regular order appropriations. In December we passed the first two-year budget in years."
Overall, Thompson expects it to be an active legislative year despite the mid-term elections.
"It's going to be a busy year," he said. "There's no doubt about it."