WASHINGTON – It once seemed as if Buffalo was stuck in a bottomless spiral while the nation’s capital, driven by a growing government, soared onward and upward, but that notion now seems oh so 2002.
Talk about a role reversal.
Western New York members of Congress now speak with guarded optimism about Buffalo’s future and downright trepidation about what’s happening in the nation’s capital – and how Washington could mess with the good thing Buffalo’s got going.
Just drive down to the waterfront or up to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus to see that good thing.
And then, if you want to worry, turn on C-SPAN.
Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, doesn’t have to do that. But he’s seen both the signs of progress in Buffalo and the chaos in Congress live and in person.
And he’s entering his fifth term, and the 113th Congress, with a big mission.
“I’m going to bring back my infrastructure bill and try to change the course of debate in Washington,” Higgins said.
It’s easy to see why he would try to do both.
Government money has played a key role in both the revival of the waterfront and the development of the Medical Campus. That being the case, just imagine what Buffalo might be able to do with its fair share of the $1.25 trillion in new federal spending on highways, bridges and airports that Higgins suggested in the last Congress and will be suggesting again.
Higgins acknowledges that he faces an uphill climb, to say the least, to get any kind of increase in infrastructure spending through a deeply divided Congress where budget-conscious Republicans control the House.
But even without that kind of a new influx of federal spending, much is in process in Buffalo that will boost the economy in coming years.
“There is a sense of a new confidence in the economy,” Higgins said, noting that between 5,000 and 7,000 new jobs are expected at the Medical Campus in the next five years. “There’s that new confidence in spite of Congress’ work.”
Higgins’ new congressional colleague, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, agreed that things seem to be turning upward in Buffalo, although he is by no means a starry-eyed optimist.
“We’ve stabilized in Western New York, and I have a sense that there may be a little bit of a bounce coming,” Collins said. “But it’s not going to be of an intensity that’s really going to get us growing.”
He said New York’s high tax rates and burdensome regulations will stand in the way of fast-track growth in the Buffalo area.
“I don’t see the growth aspect of why someone would come and start their company in New York State, and Western New York is part of New York State,” he said.
For different reasons, Higgins and Collins both worry that a divided Congress could get in the way of growth both in Buffalo and around the nation.
For Higgins, the big worry is a coming congressional fight over raising the federal debt ceiling – a battle that rocked the stock markets and resulted in a credit downgrade for the United States when it last occurred in the summer of 2011.
“I’m just worried that in 30 to 45 days, we will manufacture another crisis to serve political ends and do real and permanent damage to the economy,” Higgins said.
But to Collins, the real worry isn’t a fight over raising the debt ceiling. In fact, he supports Republican efforts to use the debt ceiling as leverage over President Obama and congressional Democrats in hopes of extracting serious federal spending cuts.
“What I won’t be doing is voting to increase debt limit and continuing trillion-dollar deficits with no end in sight and no fix for Social Security and Medicare, and continuation of the programs that have us now in a society dependent on government without the energy for people to get back to work,” Collins said.
In the end, then, both Higgins and Collins agree that Congress is not doing much to help the Buffalo economy and could hurt it.
But they disagree on the depth of the hurt.
“The American people are more optimistic, and they’ve kind of given up on Congress,” Higgins said.
But Collins said the tax increases on the wealthy in the recent “fiscal cliff” deal will be too much for small-business owners to ignore.
“My concern is that what we’ve done to small business with this last set of votes on the fiscal cliff, we are disincentivizing small business from growing,” Collins said.