Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin told the Vermillion Rotary Club Tuesday that the American economy, while more steady than over a year ago, still shows signs that Washington must work to address federal budget issues with renewed vigor.
"The economy, in my opinion, has stabilized, and I'm not going to stand here and defend every provision in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, but that vote was the right vote for South Dakota," the Democratic incumbent from Brookings said. "It is clear, in university dollars, in the infrastructure dollars, in the dollars coming into the state for health care, for education, for road construction, for water treatment facilities … that while not an easy vote, it was the right vote, in my opinion."
Herseth Sandlin acknowledges that not everyone shares her view about the effectiveness of the federal government in dealing with the nation's recession.
"But when there is disagreement, I think it is incumbent upon all of us to say 'well, what would we have done differently?' and 'what should we doing going forward to avoid a double-dip recession or to sustain the strength of this recovery?' " she said.
Herseth Sandlin said Tuesday it is also important for Congress, as the economy begins to receive more and more attention, to take steps to build in medium- and long-term fiscal discipline "that South Dakotans and other Americans are demanding after nine years of irresponsible spending decisions that turned projected surpluses into record deficits."
Both political parties share responsibilities in the decisions that have lead to a federal budget currently drowning in red ink, she said.
"It is time for us to come together, and to work together and to find consensus," Herseth Sandlin said. "In my opinion, it's not just the debt of the federal government that poses a risk to our children's and grandchildren's future – it's the rampant partisanship that is grinding the legislative process to a halt."
Congress has a host of difficult decisions to make on numerous key issues, from clean energy development and entitlement reform, to health care and defense spending, she said.
South Dakota, she noted, is one of the lower cost, higher quality providers of health care in the nation.
"We have to ensure that in Medicare and other programs, that we are driving reforms in providing quality care, especially as baby boomers become eligible for Medicare," Herseth Sandlin said. "Some of these decision got punted in the health care reform debate. Hard decisions weren't made. There were certain stakeholders in health care that made out like bandits, in my opinion, and we can't sustain what we just created.
"That's why we have to work together to make changes to implement changes that we think are moving us in the right direction," she said. "We need to move toward more delivery system reform. That's the more positive, productive way forward."
Herseth Sandlin said identified redistricting, stronger cooperation of moderate Republicans and Democrats in both houses of Congress, and presidential leadership as possible solutions to the partisanship problem currently plaguing Congress.
Iowa and Minnesota may both lose a seat in Congress due to redistricting, she noted. "But far too many of my colleagues in Washington come from safe Republican or safe Democratic seats. Most of the time they don't get a primary challenge, and they hardly have to run a campaign, and they win with 70 or 80 percent of the vote."
Office holders who come from swing districts, like the lone House district in all of South Dakota, "are, I think, better members of Congress," Herseth Sandlin said. "We more effectively listen to divergent points of view; I think we're more willing to find consensus; we're more willing to work through the committee process and listen to one another, because that's what we did to survive politically, and that's what we've always done to best serve our constituents."
She said that it doesn't matter how far left or right one of her South Dakota constituents may label herself or himself.
"I've always been able to find common ground with every constituent, organization or individual that I've spoken with," she said. "It's a matter of a having a simple conversation versus what we see on cable television or the blogosphere.
"But so many of my colleagues don't have to listen to constituents who don't agree with them," Herseth Sandlin said. "They're not at any electoral risk."
She noted that there are fewer and fewer moderates in Congress today.
"The way the Democrats took control of the House in 2006 was to defeat moderate Republicans who were in swing districts, in the way that House Republican view the strategy of taking back the House after this election by targeting moderate Democrats in the swing districts," Herseth Sandlin said.
The actions of the president also can serve to dampen partisan rancor on Capitol Hill.
"President (George W.) Bush didn't do a lot of outreach with his legislative team in his first term," Herseth Sandlin said. "It wasn't until the Democrats took control of the House that there was more outreach from the president. President Obama started his term by reaching out to Republicans, and has had success here and there with getting two or three Republicans to vote with Democrats … and I think he should have continued, even though he wasn't getting the results that he wanted.
"I do think the president has an opportunity, regardless of what happens after this election, to work with more folks in both parties to deal with the deficit that I think that he recognizes will be the top issue heading into 2012," she said. "A lot of independent voters thought they were going to get something different from Washington after the last election, and there have been instances where that's where some of the anger has been coming from – people are tired of both political parties, tired of business as usual and were hopeful for change, and I think there is still potential for that to happen."
A Vermillion Rotary member noted that most states, including South Dakota, has experienced serious budget problems and has counted on the federal government for revenue to solve that fiscal dilemma.
"Some folks have been lobbying Congress pretty hard, including Gov. Schwarzenegger (of California) for federal help, and it has been coming at us for months and months," Herseth Sandlin said. "We have been saying that we are not going to give you emergency spending. We are going to help all states that are struggling with the economy, and when we do that, we are going to pay for it."
Any decisions made to financially help states in the short term to address immediate financial needs, she said, must include a plan to pay for those decisions by making adjustments to the financing of future programs.
Herseth Sandlin said she voted for a bill a couple weeks ago that was the right vote for South Dakota.
"It didn't add a dime to the deficit, but it did bring in over $47 million to South Dakota," she said. "Half of it was requested by Gov. Rounds for Medicaid funding, and the other half was for education funding that isn't going to get down to K-12 funding this year, but will certainly be helpful in protecting higher education from more cuts going into fiscal year 2012."
The legislation was "paid for," Herseth Sandlin said, by Congress closing loopholes on businesses that ship jobs overseas, and by changing the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistant Program).