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Sen. Whitehouse’s 2014 hopes: minimum wage hike, coastal aid


PROVIDENCE — U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse believes Congress can have a productive 2014, following a year spent mired in budgetary impasses, the Rhode Island Democrat said Monday.

In an interview with The Associated Press shortly before he returned to Washington, Whitehouse said he’ll support efforts to raise the minimum wage and extend benefits to the long-term unemployed. He said he will also renew his call to create a National Endowment for the Oceans and require independent groups to identify the names of contributors who give more than $10,000 to political campaigns.

First up: debate over unemployment benefits. A bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, also a Rhode Island Democrat, would restore benefits to some 1.3 million Americans, including 4,900 Rhode Islanders, whose long-term unemployment assistance expired last month.

The Associated Press: Why do you support extending unemployment benefits? What happens if we don’t, and how long can we continue to extend these benefits?

Whitehouse: You’ll see a general reduction in economic activity — not a major one, but one that pervades the economy — and you’ll see specific stories of real distress and agony. Both are unfortunate and completely unnecessary.

When the economy is back on track we can reduce these benefits, and frankly, they’ll be reducing themselves as people move back into the workforce. For states like Rhode Island, which still have high unemployment, the notion that people are just going to go and find a job if they’re desperate enough is inconsistent with the economic realities. ... Until you have a more robust recovery that carries Rhode Island along, all you’re doing is harming people.

AP: The National Endowment on the Oceans. Give us your sales pitch.

Whitehouse: There are very few states that have more coast as a percentage of their overall landmass than Rhode Island. We’re not called the Ocean State for nothing. Whether it is our fishing industry or the people who come here for our beaches in the summer, or the communities on the South County coast, we are deeply, deeply connected to the sea and to the coastline. And yet there really isn’t a lot of attention paid to that place where land meets sea. We see it in the Coastal Resources Management Council having a lot of trouble putting money together. ... We see it in the difficulty the University of Rhode Island has finding funding for their work with the fishing community. We see it in the difficulty towns have moving coastal roads. ... The National Endowment for the Oceans creates a mechanism where communities facing those issues can apply for a competitive grant to allow them to take the necessary steps.

AP: Let’s talk about campaign finance. Does an election year make it easier to have that conversation, because voters are paying attention, or harder, because some in Congress may be counting on that money?

Whitehouse: You could make the case either way. I think it actually makes it easier. Because the vested interests who want to keep big contributions anonymous, and be able to play in the influence game that way, are a constant. And they are professionals. They don’t come and go with the tides. Their adversary in this is public opinion. Eighty, 90 percent of Americans think unlimited, anonymous campaign spending is a pretty crummy thing for our democracy. ... An election will bring a rising tide of public attention.

The AP: The minimum wage — is that something that could realistically be raised this year? What about the argument that if you’re a small business, you’re going to hire fewer employees because you have to pay them more?

Whitehouse: There are individual instances where that is true. But I think that’s a small minority. If you look at the basically flat wages that the middle class has seen, putting them into an actual economic decline, you look at booming corporate profits and revenues and stock prices you know that at the macro level there’s plenty of money out there that could easily go to paying a higher minimum wage.

And in addition to being the right thing to do, there’s a good case to be made it spurs economic activity.



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