Happy New Year! Before the U.S. Senate comes back into session next week, I wanted to share a few highlights of what we were able to accomplish for Virginia in 2015.
Since taking office more than three years ago, my office has responded to over 500,000 pieces of correspondence and requests for assistance with federal agencies. Find out more about how my team can assist you.
I was fortunate to travel to many corners of our Commonwealth to listen to your concerns and learn more about what I can do to best serve you. From discussing the importance of career and technical education (CTE) at the New College Institute in Martinsville, to hosting a service project focused on the environment and oyster reef restoration in Norfolk, to receiving an update on progress being made to shorten wait times at the Hampton VA, to brainstorming ways to fuel economic development in Richmond, to hosting roundtable discussions in Radford and Winchester on strategies to fight the opioid drug abuse epidemic, each of these visits gave me the chance to hear directly from Virginians about the challenges they’re facing. I’ve now got a lot of great ideas going into 2016 for what more we can do to help.
In order to make our constituent services accessible to folks who may not live close to one of my six regional offices in Abingdon, Danville, Manassas, Richmond, Roanoke or Virginia Beach, my staff hosted more than 100 "Kaine Connects" office hours in other communities across the Commonwealth. Take a look at where we've been, and where we’re headed this year.
I was tapped to serve on the Senate Special Committee on Aging, a role that has given me the chance to address senior citizens’ concerns about issues ranging from retirement savings to identity theft and sudden hikes in prescription drug prices. Last November, I hosted a roundtable discussion in Richmond on the impact Alzheimer’s disease has had on our communities and strategies to improve research and care. Learn more about issues the Aging Committee is focusing on here.
Getting Bills Passed & Signed Into Law
Virginia Priorities in the FY16 Defense and Omnibus Appropriations Bills: As a member of the Armed Services Committee, I worked hard to include provisions in the defense bill that benefit Virginia and strengthen our nation’s military. From protecting our shipbuilding and ship repair industry to modernizing facilities at vital military installations across Virginia, we were able to work together to ensure those who work tirelessly on behalf of our nation’s defense receive the support they deserve and that critical national security measures are implemented. Learn more about what the National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 means for Virginia by clicking here.
I also advocated for provisions that will help Virginians in the end of the year appropriations package, also known as the “omnibus” bill. The bipartisan budget deal passed in October 2015 helped pave the way for this legislation which rolls back some of the most harmful sequester cuts and provides desperately-needed budgetary certainty across many sectors. Additionally, the bill made important changes to the Visa Waiver Program that will help keep us safe and extended a number of important tax credits that Virginians rely on, including the Child Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit.
Reforming Our Education System & Teaching Safe Relationships: I was honored to have worked on the bipartisan education bill President Obama signed into law called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). It replaces the long-expired and broken legislation known as No Child Left Behind and will make changes that educators and families support, decrease the emphasis on standardized testing and give states the flexibility to close achievement gaps. I’m especially pleased that the bill allows elementary and secondary schools – for the first time – to use Title IV funds for instruction and training on safe relationship behavior among students. I drafted this provision because I believe it will help prevent sexual assault, not just on college campuses, but for all young people in the 16-24 age range who are most vulnerable. Additionally, ESSA includes provisions I advocated to improve access to K-12 career and technical education (CTE) programs. CTE is an important pathway for students to prepare for the workforce by integrating practical lessons with work-based knowledge and a hands-on learning experience. Learn more about my provisions included in the bill by clicking here.
Investing in Transportation and Infrastructure: After years of kicking the can down the road, Congress finally came together to pass a long-term transportation bill. The Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act returns $6.2 billion in federal transportation funding to Virginia over the next five years. I was pleased that several amendments I advocated for with Senator Warner were included in the bill– from strengthening federal safety oversight authority over WMATA, to requiring federal members of the WMATA board to be appointed by the Department of Transportation, to creating a new investment source for nationally-significant transportation assets like the structurally-deficient Arlington Memorial Bridge. Learn more about the bill here.
Preventing a Nuclear Iran: I was proud to co-author the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act with Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland last year to give Congress the chance to weigh in on any final deal with Iran. The bill passed with overwhelming bipartisan support and ultimately allowed for a thorough and constructive review of the deal in Congress.
In the end, I concluded that the Iran deal was a dramatic improvement over the status quo that will improve global security. The agreement takes a nuclear weapons program that was on the verge of success and disables it for many years through peaceful diplomatic means with sufficient tools for the international community to verify whether Iran is meeting its commitments. Throughout the negotiations, America honored its best traditions and showed that patient diplomacy can achieve what isolation and hostility cannot. Going forward, we must remain vigilant in monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities, including ballistic missile tests, which may violate the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Should Iran ever go back on its unequivocal pledges, this deal will make it easier to gain international support for military action. Last year, I discussed my support for the Iran nuclear deal on the Senate floor. Watch my speech here.
Addressing Issues that Impact the Commonwealth
Continuing the Push to Authorize War Against ISIL: For over 17 months, I have urged my colleagues to debate and authorize the war against ISIL. Last June, I was proud to join Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona to introduce the first bipartisan Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Congress. And in December, this AUMF was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressmen Scott Rigell (R-VA) and Peter Welch (D-VT). Thousands of American troops - including many from Virginia - are serving in the battle against ISIL, several U.S. servicemembers and hostages have been killed and the national legislatures of Germany, United Kingdom, France and Russia have stepped up to debate and vote on military action to support this war. Congress should now do the same in order to show our allies and our troops that we are unified in our resolve against ISIL.
Fighting the Heroin & Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic: Nationwide, heroin and opioids account for approximately 25,000 deaths per year, and since 1990, opioid overdose rates have tripled. In every corner of Virginia, I’ve heard how the drug abuse epidemic is hurting families, challenging law enforcement and leaving businesses without a capable workforce. The most heartbreaking aspect of this crisis is that many of the overdose deaths could have been prevented. I have introduced a number of bills that would help deal with this crisis, including legislation to increase access to life-saving naloxone, to ensure careful review of new opioid drugs and to combat the over-utilization of opioids.
Introducing Gun Safety Legislation to Make Communities Safer: Sadly, Virginia experienced another high-profile shooting last year. WDBJ journalists Alison Parker and Adam Ward were two young people with promising futures from Martinsville and Salem who became victims of senseless gun violence. Unfortunately, theirs was only one of many tragic incidents of gun violence throughout the country last year. It’s time for Congress to stand up to the NRA and the gun manufacturer lobby by passing legislation that keeps guns out of the hands of those who are legally barred from possessing them.
Last year, I introduced a number of bills aimed at reducing gun violence. The Background Check Completion Act that would close a loophole that has allowed thousands of guns to be sold to prohibited buyers, including the Charleston shooter, Dylann Roof. I also introduced the Responsible Transfer of Firearms Act to hold people responsible if they sell or transfer a firearm to someone who is barred by federal law from possessing one. I know we can make our country safer from gun violence and I hope more members of Congress will stand with me in this fight.
Constructing an Embassy Security Training Center at Fort Pickett: For years, I’ve been hard at work with the Virginia delegation to locate a Foreign Affairs Security Training Center (FASTC) at Fort Pickett in Blackstone, VA. I’m glad to report that the omnibus appropriations bill provides $99 million for a FASTC at Fort Pickett after years of unnecessary Congressional delays. The funding represents strong Congressional support and recognition of the need to better protect our U.S. embassy personnel in an increasingly dangerous world. A Government Accountability Office study released in September concluded that Fort Pickett meets all four key requirements for a new facility. This followed a 2012 report from the Benghazi Accountability Review Board, an independent panel convened in the wake of the tragedy, that recommended urgently moving forward with FASTC at Fort Pickett and a review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that resulted in the same conclusion - that Fort Pickett is the best site.
Federal Recognition of Virginia’s Pamunkey Tribe: Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) announced that the Pamunkey tribe would receive long-overdue federal recognition, an appeal filed last October has put the process on hold. I’m confident that the BIA can resolve the issues on appeal and am thrilled at the prospect that the Pamunkey will finally be eligible for federal benefits including housing, education and healthcare funding. I’m optimistic that a final decision to recognize the Pamunkey will spur Congress to act on my bill that seeks recognition for six other Virginia tribes who were among the first to make contact with European settlers.
U.S.S. John F. Kennedy: Last year, the Navy officially awarded Newport News Shipbuilding a contract to begin construction on the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier. This is a clear indication of our nation’s commitment to the aircraft carrier and confidence in the Virginia shipbuilding industries that have long supported their construction.
Road Signs to Danville: My office successfully helped convince the city of Greensboro, N.C. to post signs to Danville on Route 29 North. From now on, anyone driving north from Greensboro won’t be able to miss Danville!
Other Highlights of 2015
Pope Francis made a historic visit to the United States and became the first Pope to address a Joint Meeting of Congress. He set high expectations for us using the stories of four great Americans to say, ‘you are a great nation and you’ve had great leaders.’ Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton – this is who we are as a people. And in a world that still has huge challenges, he reminded us that we have a unique role to do something about them.
Last February, 35 years after taking a year off from law school to work in Honduras, I had the opportunity to return for a visit focused on the economic and security challenges that have spurred tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors to seek refuge in the United States. I also had the chance to go back to El Progreso, the small city outside San Pedro Sula where I worked with Jesuit missionaries at a technical school in 1980. The school has grown rapidly but the spirit of the people that inspired me to pursue public service was as present as ever. View photos from my trip here.
Last December, U.S. leadership at the COP21 conference in Paris produced a landmark agreement representing the largest step ever taken at the international level towards addressing climate change. I applaud the spirit of diplomacy and shared purpose shown by 196 countries in negotiating this global foundation to rise to a common challenge. From scientists around the world, to Hampton Roads city planners dealing with recurrent flooding, to His Holiness Pope Francis, the consensus is clear: climate change is real, it is caused by humans and we have a responsibility to act.
Thank you for your continued support, and please let me know if there are any specific issues you would like to continue receiving updates on this year.
Best wishes for the New Year!