Tuesday, September 14, 2010

"Angels in Our Community"

Weekly Column by Senator Susan Collins

There are few things in life more touching than to see individuals give generously of themselves to improve the lives of children. There is no place where this is more evident than in homes that have opened their doors and their hearts to children who do not have a family to love and care for them.

One of the most basic needs of a child is to have a safe and loving home, with a family to cherish and support them. But for hundreds of thousands of children in America-50 million worldwide-unfortunate circumstances have robbed them of the love, support and stability of a family. But among us are "Angels," who are eager to provide loving homes for these children.

Some of these angels live in Maine. In October, a family from China, Maine will be honored for its commitment to children.

Each year, Members of Congress have the privilege of recognizing members of the community who have truly made a difference in children's lives through adoption with "Angels in Adoption" awards. As a member of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption, I nominated Tarren and Anna Bragdon.

Their story as adoptive parents of is a story of love, patience and inspiration. Four years ago, Tarren and Anna adopted their first child, Wyatt, as an infant from South Korea. They wanted their new son to know the joys and closeness of a large and loving family so they subsequently adopted an infant girl, Waverly, from Korea.

As the love in their home grew, so did their desire for a larger family. Moved by the plight of children around the world who need families, they began the adoption process again. In March, the Bragdons were granted permission to adopt Muhammad and Habib Kedir, twin boys born in Ethiopia who came to an international care center at just three days old and each weighing less than three pounds.

While waiting for approval from the U.S. Embassy to bring the boys home to Maine, however, the Bragdons learned that one of the twins had become very ill and needed critical medical care. Muhammad, now named Jude Randon Bragdon, suffered from bacterial meningitis, pneumonia, and subdural empyema, an infection of the brain-conditions with a high mortality rate even in the U.S. He needed to remain hospitalized. Tarren and Anna agreed that Jude should not be alone and one of them needed to be at the hospital. Although they had never met the boy, Tarren traveled for 20 hours to Ethiopia to be with his newly adopted son. There, he stayed for more than three weeks dividing his time between the hospital with Jude or at the orphanage with Jude's brother, Habib, who is now named Asher McNamara Bragdon. Soon, Anna joined Tarren and they waited patiently for Jude's condition to improve.

Once the twins were medically cleared to travel, they were issued visas and came to their new home to Maine in June. Today, they are healthy, happy, and thriving young boys.

It gives me great pleasure to provide such well-deserved recognition to this exceptional family. It is extraordinary people like Tarren and Anna who are making a difference to a growing number of children.

It is for this reason that I was pleased to be a cosponsor of the Adoption Promotion Act which was signed into law in 2003. This legislation extended and improved the Adoption Incentive Program, created as part of the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act.

The Adoption Incentives Program, which rewards states for their efforts to unite foster children with permanent, loving families, has been a great success. Since the program's inception, adoptions in our country have increased by 64 percent. There are, however, still thousands of children nationwide, including hundreds in Maine, in the foster care system who are eligible for adoption but are still waiting for permanent homes.

Many older children wait for years to be placed with an adoptive family, if they are adopted at all. I was therefore pleased that the Adoption Promotion Act included a new incentive to encourage the adoption of older children. Older children also need a stable and loving environment so that they can grow up to be happy, healthy, and productive adults.

It is efforts such as those being made by the "Angels in Adoption" program and the Adoption Promotion Act that are raising public awareness of the ways that committed individuals can help children through adoption and foster care. And it is the example set by people like Tarren and Anna Bragdon that will inspire others to think about adopting.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Afghanistan- The Difficult Road Ahead

Sen. Susan M. Collins
Bangor Foreign Policy Forum
Aug. 17, 2010

There is a term that comes to us from the field of journalism. It served as a warning for journalists who ignore problems in their own communities, such corruption at City Hall or crime in the streets. Instead, a journalist suffering the symptoms of this particular diagnosis would expound at great length and with great passion on some bad thing happening in some faraway place. The more unsolvable the problem and the more distant the place, the greater the length of the articles and the depth of the passion.

The term is “Afghanistanism.”

Today, Afghanistan is anything but irrelevant to our lives. It is now the place where our nation has sent thousands of troops to war for the past nine years. More than 300 of those currently serving there are from the Maine National Guard, plus many other Mainers are serving in active duty units across our military. It is also where we have spent billions of dollars with seemingly little to show for the investment.

If I were addressing you five years ago about Afghanistan, I would have commented on the remarkable and positive change I had seen in my trips there up until that time. It is a country that several years ago seemed to have turned the corner. With Americans leading the way, NATO forces had dislodged the Taliban from power, and al Qaeda was on the run. People who had known nothing but violence and oppression began enjoying their first taste of human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

But I am addressing you today, and we are not in the same place as we were.

This war has broken the hearts of families, friends, and entire communities here at home who have lost loved ones. The war has drained our national treasury during a time of economic crisis. Many Americans now are asking: Is it still worth it? Can we succeed? What would success look like? These are the questions at the focus of the debate in Washington today.

In many ways, my four journeys to Afghanistan over the last nine years reflect the course of the war. Each time I have travelled to Afghanistan, I have met with Afghan leaders and civilians, talked with our military commanders and their civilian counterparts, and listened to our troops serving on the front lines.

My first trip to Afghanistan, in 2002, was harrowing. It was so dangerous that our delegation could only visit Bagram Air Base under cover of darkness, and our plane had to make a stomach-turning spiral landing in case there were incoming fire. Hamid Karzai, recently smuggled into the country, met with us in a green Army tent with a space heater in one corner near an aircraft hanger with huge holes in its roof. Schools had not yet opened to girls who were denied an education during the cruel years of Taliban rule. I remember seeking a promise from Karzai to open schools to girls once he became president, a commitment he readily gave and has largely kept.
My next trip was in early 2005, and what a difference three years had made. This time our military aircraft landed at the international airport in Kabul, and it was safe enough to drive into the capital city, albeit in armored SUVs. Along the route, the streets were lined with Afghans going about their daily lives. Fruit stands were everywhere, and merchandise was piled high in front of tiny shops. No longer was it a crime to possess a toothbrush, rather than a wooden implement modeled on what Mohammed used in the 7th Century. The sports stadium was transformed from an arena of public executions to an arena filled with spirited soccer matches.

Perhaps most striking was the change in the status of girls and women. No longer were women beaten if they were not wearing burqas. By 2005, schools were open all over the country, and many girls were getting an education. In Kabul, older girls once prohibited from attending school were going to special classes designed to accelerate their learning. One out of every five university students was a woman. After being barred from working outside of the home under the Taliban, women also had returned to the workforce and government. A woman had been named Governor of Barmiyan Province, and women had been elected to the new Afghan assembly.

The Afghan people were still extremely poor, but their feeling of optimism was apparent. Everywhere we went, Afghans expressed their gratitude for America’s sacrifice in liberating their country from the Taliban and al Qaeda. The recent elections had been peaceful and the voter turnout was strong. These signs of progress were even more evident in my visit in my third trip in late 2006.

One year ago this month, I was in Afghanistan on my fourth trip to the country. This time, I found that the situation had worsened significantly. The Taliban were regaining power. The central government was increasingly perceived as weak and inept. Corruption was rampant. Despite several years of opportunity to build up the Afghan security forces, American troops continued carrying the bulk of the military assignments, with far too few Afghan soldiers by their side.

Our congressional delegation met with General Stan McChrystal, who had just taken command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. He bluntly warned that the military situation was “serious and deteriorating,” and said that the new strategy of counter-insurgency required more troops.

It was a sobering journey. Earlier that week, a suicide bomber had killed several Afghan civilians and wounded nearly 100 more. After Kabul, we went to Camp Leatherneck in the dangerous Helmand Province, where a young Marine from Maine had died just a few days earlier in combat.

His Marine comrades told me that after they fight to drive the Taliban out of a village, there was not the required follow-up by Afghan military forces and government leaders to secure and stabilize the town. The prevailing strategy of “clear, hold, build, and transition” seemed stuck on “clear.” I returned from that trip a year ago with more questions than answers.
By the end of this month, an additional 30,000 American troops will be in place as a part of the Afghanistan surge announced by President Obama in December 2009. In all, U.S. forces will consist of nearly 100,000 troops, nearly triple the number that were there in January 2009. As with the Iraq surge, I am convinced that it will succeed only if it is accompanied by a vigorous and committed build-up of Afghan security forces, in both numbers and capability.

Consider this fact: as of April of this year, coalition forces could operate only in 48 of the 121 key districts in Afghanistan. This leaves 73 key districts that are unguarded. Ultimately, this gap will need to be filled by the Afghan security forces.

My trip last summer convinced me that if the counter-insurgency strategy is to succeed, Afghanistan needs a civilian surge. As a result of its troubled history, Afghanistan simply does not have enough people with experience in providing basic government services. We do not have enough civilians from America and other countries helping the Afghans learn how to build communities that work and a society free from repression and fear that they will fight to defend. A counter-insurgency strategy depends on a unity of effort between the military and the civilian personnel, yet the civilian side of our mission has been severely understaffed.

But the question of what strategy should be employed and how it should be resourced does not answer a more fundamental question. Last December, at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates that question: “Why Afghanistan? ” The Secretary had just testified that a primary objective of American strategy in Afghanistan is to prevent al Qaeda from regaining sanctuary in Afghanistan. Yet, as I pointed out to him, al Qaeda has a presence in more than 20 countries. In Yemen, for example, al Qaeda is strong enough to have attacked the USS Cole in 2000 and the U.S. embassy in 2008, and later that very month, to have launched the Christmas Day bomber, Abdulmutallab.

I asked the Secretary: How will it make us safer to invest more troops and treasure in Afghanistan as long as al Qaeda still has the ability to establish safe havens in other countries? What is it about Afghanistan that makes it critical that we invest more troops and more civilian personnel, that we put more Americans at risk in that country?

Secretary Gates began his answer by reminding the Committee that it was from Afghanistan that the attack against us was launched in 2001. But it was what he said next that resonated most with me. Calling Afghanistan “the epicenter of the global extremist jihad,” he said that the al Qaeda presence and its leadership in the border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan are still the wellspring of inspiration for Islamist terrorists everywhere.

The inspiration and often times the guidance and strategic leadership come from the al Qaeda leadership in that border area of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Secretary went on to explain that what we have seen is an unholy alliance of al Qaeda, the Taliban in Pakistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. And these people work off each other’s mythology, off each other’s narrative, where the success of one contributes to the success of the other.

Afghanistan is where these extremists consider that they defeated the Soviet Union and give themselves credit for the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse. If they are successful in driving the United States and other NATO forces out of Afghanistan prior to the Afghan security forces being able to provide a measure of peace and security, the extremists will claim defeat of a second global power, and Islamist terrorists around the world will be emboldened. If we walk away now, the Karzai government would almost certainly collapse, and the Taliban would take over much of the country. As one expert said, “Afghanistan would become another Lebanon where the civil war blends into a regional war involving multiple neighboring states.”

Uneasy though I am with President Obama’s escalation of the war and my continuing feeling that he is not fully committed to the policy he is pursuing, I found the reasons outlined by Secretary Gate to be the best answer for our continued presence. I remain troubled that the President has neither embraced nor abandoned the war in Afghanistan but remains conflicted about our policy.

While America’s strategic interests must determine our involvement, the cover of the August 9th issue of Time magazine also reminds us of what is at stake for the Afghans themselves.

It is a photograph of a beautiful 18-year-old Afghan woman named Aisha. She is beautiful despite the fact that the Taliban cut her nose off. If her hair were pulled back, you would see that her ears had been cut off as well. Her crime? Trying to flee from her abusive in-laws.

During meetings with Afghan leaders last summer, I took the opportunity to express my dismay that President Karzai's early commitment to justice for women was betrayed by his decision last year to sign a law that was a giant step backwards in the rights of women, including the legalization of marital rape. The Judicial Minister told me that the law had been repealed and had been a “huge mistake.” But the fact that President Karzai initially supported the bill is deeply troubling.

Aisha’s beauty lies in her extraordinary courage. She stepped forward, at great personal risk, to remind the world what a resurgent Taliban would mean for Afghanistan. Imagine what such barbarism would be capable of if in possession of nuclear weapons from a failed Pakistan.

But even if there are good reasons to remain in Afghanistan, even if we can define a more humble definition of success, even if we have the best troops and the most brilliant commanders, can we succeed?

In fact, how should we define success? Senator Richard Lugar raised this important question at a recent Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Lacking a clear definition, he said, we are in danger of being seen as trying to remake Afghan culture to conform to ours. That is beyond our resources and powers, and it arouses the ancient Afghan hatred of foreign domination. From the century-long Great Game between Russia and Great Britain for control of Central Asia during the 1800s to the Soviet Union’s ill-fated invasion in 1979, Afghanistan has been subject to such conquests. Even today, Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors – Iran, Pakistan, and China – see it only though the lens of their own self-interest and strive to manipulate it to serve their own ends. As many experts on Afghanistan have observed, the only thing that seems to unite Afghans is fighting outsiders.

We are not in Afghanistan to control trade routes, or to seize territory and resources. We are not there to cause geo-political mischief or to spread our own ideology. Instead, Senator Lugar believes, as I do, that we must narrow our definition of our purpose there. First and foremost, we must prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. A second goal is to make sure that Afghanistan does not destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country now suffering a horrendous natural disaster. And third, we must help Afghans craft a just and humane society that they will defend, but we cannot do it for them.

Achieving these limited goals raises the difficult issue of Taliban influence and of reconciliation, an issue I have raised on several occasions with our military and diplomatic leaders. Their view is that we essentially are dealing with two Talibans. The “Big T” Taliban are those die-hard barbarians who will stop at nothing – from mass murder to mutilation – in order to impose their hateful ideology. For them, there can be no reconciliation.

Then there are the “Little T” Taliban. Far greater in number, these are the chronically poor and powerless. They take up arms with the Taliban out of dire need for the meager wages and out of fear. They can and should be reintegrated into society.

President Karzai’s draft reconciliation program needs a lot of work and has justifiably drawn much criticism from NATO leaders, who question whether or not it guarantees that Taliban leaders who are allowed to participate in the government have truly broken their ties with al Qaeda. Nevertheless, the fact that President Karzai’s tribal conferences – the jirgas – held to discuss reconciliation are routinely attacked by Taliban rockets and snipers is a strong sign that Big T Taliban recognize the threat reconciliation poses to their power.

And what about President Karzai himself? A fundamental tenet of our counter-insurgency strategy is that it requires a dependable partner. When I first met Hamid Karzai in that Army tent back in 2002, the one word that stuck in my mind was “charismatic.” Charisma is a style, not necessarily a virtue. His courage in standing against the Taliban is undeniable, however, and some of the progress I saw in 2005 and 2006 is the fruit of his leadership. On the other hand, the rampant corruption in his government, including by members of his own family, is intolerable. It is especially troubling that, rather than improving, the Karzai government appears to be increasingly corrupt, inept, and erratic.

Afghanistan history is relevant because understanding its past helps us understand the challenges we face today. In his speech here last month, Ken Hillas, one of our most experienced Foreign Service officers, described the longstanding tribal conflicts that define the country. People consider themselves Pashtun, Turkmen, Uzbek, or Tajik, rather than Afghans. Centuries of rule by greedy and brutal warlords have made corruption by government officials expected, a right and privilege of power. This corruption is a major obstacle to the success of the counter-insurgency strategy in Afghanistan.

The recent change in command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan could help strengthen the effort to crack down on corruption and to build up the Afghan security forces. I greatly admire and respect General McChrystal’s service. We are fortunate that his position was filled by General David Petraeus, another proven and brilliant commander who successfully devised and implemented the counter-insurgency strategy in Iraq that has allowed us to draw down our troops and transfer responsibility to the Iraqis.

I have met with General Petraeus many times, both in Washington and in the field in Iraq. The General has correctly identified corruption as an enemy that is just as real as the Taliban. He is sharpening the focus on keeping villages secure after they have been cleared of Taliban, and just as he did in Iraq, he is accelerating efforts to train and deploy Afghan forces. And he is striving to replicate the strong and highly effective military-diplomatic team he had in Iraq.

A key to success in Iraq was the outstanding diplomatic partner General Petraeus had there, Ambassador Ryan Crocker. By contrast, General McChrystal did not enjoy a similar united front with our chief diplomat in Afghanistan, former General Karl Eikenberry. The partnership between Petraeus and Eikenberry appears to be more harmonious, but if it does not succeed, the President needs to appoint a new ambassador. Otherwise, the cohesion between the civilian and military teams will not be effective.

The re-evaluation of the situation in Afghanistan that President Obama has ordered for December 2010 and July of 2011 will be a report card on the effectiveness of his strategy, as well as that of the Afghans. At an Appropriations Committee hearing this March, Secretary of State Clinton described significant steps that have been taken to mount a much-needed civilian surge. Our civilian personnel on the ground have tripled in number, helping to move Afghanistan forward in everything from building schools to establishing a prosecutor’s office to rein in corruption. A massive assistance program for Afghan farmers is underway. By helping families support themselves, this could reduce the reliance on opium production, which supports terrorism, and it could diminish the appeal of the low wages the Taliban offers to “Little T” fighters.

Secretary Clinton also described a renewed effort to strengthen our ties with the people of Pakistan and to bolster that country’s ability to counter extremism. As the original home of the Taliban movement, a stable Pakistan is essential to the future of Afghanistan and to American security.

Finally, let me return to my speech here two years ago, when I discussed an issue that is as important today as it was then – the need for bipartisanship here at home.

Foreign policy must always be subject to vigorous and open debate, but, as Senator Arthur Vandenberg stated more than 60 years ago, “Politics must end at the water's edge.” His call, at the beginning of the Cold War, for America to speak to the world with a unified voice must be heeded today against another enemy that seeks to divide us. Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders have said repeatedly that, just as they did to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, they will defeat America simply by wearing down our resolve.

The struggle in Afghanistan has been long and it has been difficult. There are no guarantees. But surely, the debate on our strategy and purpose, vigorous and at times contentious though it may be, should not be a source of hope to terrorists. They should not mistake the spirited debate of a democracy for a lessening of our commitment to defeat the Islamist terrorism that seeks to crush our democracy and our American way of life.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Déjà vu: The Postal Service’s Economic Troubles

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

The United States Postal Service (USPS) recently outlined a ten-year plan intended to address declining mail volume and increase its slumping revenue. In recent years, the USPS has been hit with falling mail volume, the recession, and the loss of customers to digital technology, such as e-mail and online bill paying, that has replaced traditional mail.

During a recent hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, of which I am Ranking Member, Postmaster General John Potter testified that the Postal Service faces a projected $238 billion shortfall during the next decade. And he’s asking Congress to help fix its dire and deteriorating financial condition.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because we have been here before.

I also serve as Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, which has held 14 hearings related to the financial crisis at the Postal Service since 2003.

Nine years ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) first placed the Postal Service on its “high-risk list” because it faced formidable financial, operational, and human capital challenges that threatened its long-term viability. As a result of the passage of the postal reform act of 2006, which I authored with Senator Tom Carper (D-DE), the GAO removed the USPS from the list. But last year, the Postal Service, losing billions and facing a crisis, was once again added to the high-risk list.

Approximately every three years – in 2003, 2006, and again last year, the Postal Service has come to Congress seeking relief from its financial obligations in exchange for promises of future profitability. Now, among other things, the Postmaster General is asking Congress to allow it to reduce delivery services from six to five days a week. The USPS also wants to be freed from its obligation to pre-fund retiree health benefits.

In 2003, Congress passed pension reform legislation I coauthored that reduced the Postal Service’s pension costs by approximately $9 billion from fiscal year 2003 to 2005.

In 2006, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act that Senator Carper and I sponsored relieved the Postal Service of a $27 billion obligation, primarily by transferring the Postal Service’s obligations for the retirement benefits of its employees with prior military service to the Treasury Department.

In 2009, Congress voted, at the Postal Service’s request, to reduce the Postal Service’s annual retiree health benefits payment that was due on September 30th by $4 billion.

Over and over again, the Postmaster General has promised that if only Congress would allow the USPS relief from its financial obligations and take other actions, it would be on solid financial footing. But time and again, I have been disappointed in the results.

The Postal Service is one of our oldest institutions and is the linchpin of a $900 billion mailing industry that employs close to nine million people in businesses as diverse as paper manufacturing, printing, catalog companies, publishing, and financial services.

This is why I believe the Postal Service needs to focus first on expanding customer services and developing new revenue streams rather than cutting services in order to reduce its red ink.

I will, as I always have, carefully consider the Postmaster General’s latest requests. But the USPS will have to present a compelling case that cutting services, such as reducing delivery to five days a week, will not further decrease volume, drive more customers away, and set off a death spiral.

It will take all members of the postal community, including Postal Service employees and management, members of the mailing community, Congress, and the Administration to contribute to the solution to this financial crisis.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Working with Maine Families to Support Critical Funding for Diabetes Research

Weekly column by Senator Susan Collins

As the founder and co-chair of the Senate Diabetes Caucus, I have learned much about the disease and the difficulties and heartbreak that diabetes causes for so many American families as they await a cure. Diabetes is a life-long condition that affects people of every age, race and nationality. It is the leading cause of kidney failure, blindness in adults, and amputations not related to injury.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85,000 Mainers were diagnosed with diabetes in 2008, up from 34,000 in 1994. The burden of diabetes is particularly heavy for children and young adults with Type 1, or juvenile diabetes. Juvenile diabetes is the second most common chronic disease affecting children, and it is one that they never outgrow. On average, a child with Type 1 diabetes will have to take over 50,000 insulin shots in a lifetime.

I recently met with several Maine children, and their families, to discuss federal efforts to help those who are afflicted with this devastating illness. Among them was Caroline Sweeney of Gray whose seven-year-old son, Aidan, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes just months before his second birthday. Youngsters, like Aidan, whose lives have been forever changed by diabetes, motivate me to continue to devote so much energy to this issue.

It was heart-warming to receive hugs from these children who are so thankful for federal efforts to help find a cure, and we are making progress. Since I founded the Senate Diabetes Caucus in 1997, funding for diabetes research has more than tripled from $319 million to more than a billion dollars last year. That sounds like a lot of money, but consider this-- treating people with diabetes accounts for more than $174 billion of our nation’s annual health care costs. Overall, health care spending for people with diabetes is almost double what it would be if they did not have the disease. If we can find a cure for diabetes, not only do we dramatically improve the lives of children like Aidan and millions of other people, but we also significantly reduce the nation’s overall health care costs. And, as a result of our commitment, we have seen some encouraging breakthroughs in diabetes research, and we are on the threshold of a number of important new discoveries.

This is clearly no time to take our foot off the accelerator. We have two choices, we can sit back and continue to pay the bills and endure the suffering, or we can aggressively pursue a national strategy aimed at curing this terrible disease. That is why I recently joined Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) in introducing bipartisan legislation to renew the Special Diabetes Program which expires next year. We need to act now to renew and increase the funding. This program is credited with helping the medical community achieve major advancements, resulting in tangible improvements in the lives of Americans who are living with diabetes. But if this crucial program is not renewed, federal support for Type 1 diabetes research will be cut by 35 percent.

During our meeting, Caroline Sweeney thanked me for my support of the Special Diabetes Program. “Renewing this program provides hope for Aidan and all those living with Type 1 diabetes,” she said. But it is I who wants to thank families, like the Sweeneys, who are so committed to helping me lead the effort to secure critical funding that, one day, will hopefully lead to a cure.


U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, received a commitment from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that his staff will work closely with stakeholders in Maine and New Hampshire to carefully consider supporting an application for grant funding to rehabilitate the historic Memorial Bridge that links Kittery with Portsmouth.

Senator Collins, along with other members of the Maine and New Hampshire Congressional delegations, supported a joint request from Maine and New Hampshire for $70 million in funding from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) program which would have been used to update this critical bridge. The Department of Transportation received $56.5 billion in grant application requests for a total just $1.5 billion. Unfortunately, the Memorial Bridge project was not funded in the first round of grants announced last month.

Today, during a Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee hearing, Senator Collins explained to Secretary LaHood the importance of this rehabilitation project and urged him to carefully consider supporting the project in an upcoming, second round of TIGER funding.

“These two states collaborated on a TIGER grant application with unanimous support from the Maine and New Hampshire congressional delegations and both governors,” said Senator Collins. “This is a major thoroughfare connecting Maine and New Hampshire. It’s important for commerce, for tourists, and for day-to-day residents, and I urge you to take a close look at this proposal as you consider the second round of grant applications.”

Secretary LaHood responded, “Senator, let me suggest that we work with your staff and get the stakeholders from both states together to review their application in anticipation of us posting up our guidance on the next round. That may be helpful for them and if we could work with your staff to get those people gathered together we could talk about the previous application and the way forward.”

Senator Collins said her office will work with local officials in Maine and New Hampshire to discuss the next steps.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


WASHINGTON, D.C.—U.S. Senator Susan Collins, a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, today secured a commitment from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to work with her, state, and local officials in an effort to keep the important Maine, Montreal & Atlantic (MMA) Railway operating in Northern Maine. Secretary LaHood pledged to send the Federal Railroad Administrator to Maine to work on a plan to keep the railway operating.

During a Senate Appropriations Transportation Subcommittee hearing, Senator Collins explained to Secretary LaHood how the current owner of MMA recently filed a notice of intent to abandon 233 miles of its track in Aroostook and northern Penobscot Counties, citing high operating costs and low shipping volume as a result of the current economic climate. MMA provides the only freight rail service in Aroostook County, serving primarily the pulp and paper, agricultural and potato processing industries.

Senator Collins expressed serious concerns regarding the proposal to abandon this critical rail link, which would have a devastating impact on the economy of Aroostook County and the State of Maine.

“I am so committed to saving freight rail service to Northern Maine. If the MMA rail line is abandoned, it will be devastating to Maine’s economy, especially given the already steep 9.8 percent unemployment rate in Aroostook County,” Senator Collins said to Secretary LaHood. “Twenty-two shippers directly rely on the rail line. The pulp and paper industry is the primary source of traffic for the MMA. Other major sources of traffic include petroleum, forest products and chemicals.

Senator Collins continued, “All parties involved agree that in order to make this line work, it will take an investment of capital whether from state, federal and private sources. Today, I am asking you to work with me to help identify a solution.”

Secretary LaHood responded, “Senator Collins, thank you for your leadership on this issue. You’ll have my full commitment. Freight rail is very important-- it’s a big component of our transportation system in America. What I’d like to offer is for our Rail Administrator to go to Maine as quickly as possible and meet with all the stakeholders and we’ll figure out some kind of funding opportunity to make sure that this rail line is not closed down. It’s like an interstate- you can’t close down part of an interstate that connects so many different parts of the state. I am committed to helping you. I’ll have our Rail Administrator in Maine and we will work with you on a plan to get this funded.”

Friday, February 26, 2010

Read Across America Day

Weekly Column by Senator Susan Collins

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away.” On March 2, we can all help our nation’s children set sail on a wonderful voyage of discovery, imagination, and possibilities by celebrating Read Across America Day.

For 13 years, this particular date has been set aside because it is the birthday of one of the world’s favorite children’s book authors – Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss. Everyone has a favorite Dr. Seuss book, but the one that stands apart is, of course, The Cat in the Hat.
The story behind this classic book is fascinating. In 1954, Life magazine published an alarming report on illiteracy among school children, which concluded that children were not reading simply because many of their books were boring. Geisel, already a successful author and cartoonist, was given a list of 250 words by his editor and the challenge of turning them into a “book children can’t put down.” Geisel cut the list down to 236 words and produced a captivating book that hasn’t been put down ever since.
Despite much effort and some progress, early literacy remains a problem. The National Institutes of Health has estimated that about 20 million of America’s 53 million school-age children have difficulty reading, and intervention often occurs too late. For those children who reach the third grade without the ability to read, every assignment is a struggle and every day in the classroom can bring embarrassment. Children without basic reading skills are at a greater risk of losing their natural curiosity and excitement for learning.
The key to success is to attack the problem right away. If a child’s reading difficulty is detected early and he or she receives help in kindergarten or first grade, that child has a 90 to 95 percent chance of becoming a good reader. By contrast, if that intervention does not occur, the “window of literacy” closes, and the chances of the child ever becoming a good reader plummet. Moreover, if a child with reading disabilities becomes part of the special education system, the chances of his leaving special education are less than five percent.
While there are many ways that teachers and lawmakers are addressing this issue, nothing can replace the learning that takes place during interaction between parents and their children. Much of the learning and preparation that make reading possible occurs long before a child ever sets foot in a classroom. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children whose parents read to them three or more times a week are almost twice as likely to be able to identify every letter of the alphabet by the time they enter kindergarten. They are also more likely to be able to count to 20 and write their own names. When a child enters kindergarten already recognizing letters and familiar with books, she or he is better prepared to learn and less likely to encounter difficulty in learning to read.
One of my first jobs as a teenager was reading to children during “Story Hour” at the public library in my hometown of Caribou. I learned at that early age that encouraging children to read is an investment in our children's education and, ultimately, an investment in the future of our country. That is why I have made it a priority to support funding for reading programs and to visit as many schools as I can throughout our state to read to as many children as possible.
To date, I have visited more than 170 schools throughout Maine and have had the wonderful opportunity to share some of my favorite books with thousands of children. I often read books by Maine authors, such as Antlers Forever by Frances Bloxam, Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, and The Sea Chest by Toni Buzzeo. The words and illustrations in these books are wonderful, but reading books by Maine authors also helps show students that they too can grow up to write books. Taking the time to read to children is not only a worthwhile investment but also a rewarding experience.
Read Across America Day will be celebrated with special events in schools, libraries, and community centers throughout the country. But capturing the spirit of this special day can be achieved through a much simpler act: spending 30 minutes of your time each day to enlarge a child’s world through a book. It is my hope that “Read Across America” will continue to encourage families to get into a daily practice of reading to their children and helping them enjoy the magic of books.

I applaud schoolteachers, librarians, and most of all, parents, for their commitment to teaching children the joys of reading. I encourage all Mainers who have or spend time with young children to observe and enjoy Read Across America every day, and to help them begin this great adventure. Remember, as they say in Seussville, "You're never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read to a child.”