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Sewell: Constituent Service Involves Listening, and Then Doing Something to Help

My first year in Congress was an amazing journey, full of battles that sometimes yielded victory and other times frustration. It was a year filled with political gridlock, triumphs for the 7th district of Alabama and unimaginable tragedy. However, I am optimistic for a 2012 where Members of Congress will make a better effort to work together, collaborate and make progress toward improving the lives of the American people.

In April 2011, our district suffered devastation from an outbreak of storms and tornadoes. Nine of the 12 counties in my district experienced tremendous damage. Schools, churches, businesses and communities were destroyed; sadly, many of our constituents lost friends and loved ones. It was one of the deadliest outbreaks of tornadoes in nearly 40 years. It was during this tragedy that I witnessed the strength and fortitude of Alabamians and understood the importance of my role in helping families recover by expediting federal resources and supporting the rebuilding process through legislation.

As recovery efforts from the April tornadoes continue, I know that Alabamians across the state are concerned about jobs, foreclosures, health care and the rising cost of living. In my district alone, we have faced drastically high unemployment and foreclosures that have left many families and children homeless and desolate, looking to Congress for a lifeline. The largest county in our district filed for bankruptcy in 2011 because of a sewer funding fiasco, and now its residents are bracing for higher sewer rates with little to no resources to pay them.

I have committed myself to focusing on areas where we can make a difference. We made it our priority to meet with constituents throughout the district in one-on-one meetings, town halls and church forums to hear what their needs are and how we can best represent them in Washington. In 2011, we helped constituents receive more than $1,375,000 in benefits owed to them by the federal government, and organizations in the district were awarded more than $20 million in federal grants.

In my first year, we spent a great deal of time engaged in discussions with small-business owners, mayors and educators about job creation, worker retention and expansion. Subsequently, I introduced my first piece of legislation, the Small Business Start-Up Savings Account Act. The bill is a part of the larger Democratic “Make It in America” agenda and would provide stronger incentives for aspiring entrepreneurs by allowing them to more easily save money to start a business.

In the 7th district, Alabama and this country, the No. 1 issue is job creation. In Alabama, unemployment and poverty rates have both increased dramatically since the start of the most recent recession. In parts of the 7th, unemployment rates are as high as 19 percent. These numbers demonstrate the need for legislation that helps create jobs, grows local economies and helps communities secure resources to rebuild and grow. During our town hall meetings, we heard from countless constituents who lost their jobs or their homes and many who are just struggling to pay for their medication after facing great loss from this economic crisis. They need help now.

I applaud President Barack Obama’s effort to put forth a comprehensive plan to create jobs, strengthen our economy and help struggling Americans. The president’s plan would initiate strategic investments to stimulate job creation and strengthen economic development. Unfortunately, the House Republican leadership never allowed us to vote on it. It is my hope that this year both sides will come together and agree on a substantive jobs plan. It’s imperative that Congress focus on promoting an entrepreneurial climate, supporting American businesses and protecting and aiding American workers.

While we are still recovering from one of the worst recessions most of us have ever experienced and are far from rounding the corner on this crisis, I am confident that we can set our country back on the right track. We will have to make some very difficult decisions, but we simply cannot shift our nation’s financial difficulties onto the backs of the most vulnerable. As I begin my second year in office, I will work closely with my colleagues to ensure that we pursue a bipartisan approach that will help us reduce the deficit, control spending, eliminate waste and begin getting our fiscal house in order without sacrificing the needs of the American people.

Rep. Terri Sewell is a member of the Agriculture and the Science, Space and Technology committees.

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