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This article was originally published in the Washington Post on 09/05/2019

As we move into the fall, there’s one overriding foreign policy priority for the United States: Find a strategy to deal with a rising China that protects U.S. interests but doesn’t subvert the global economy.

China is the challenge of our time, and the risks of getting it wrong are enormous. Huawei, the Shenzen-based communications powerhouse, argues in a slick new YouTube video that its critics want to create a new Berlin Wall. That’s not true — Huawei and other Chinese tech companies have allegedly been stealing intellectual property for years and are finally being held accountable — but there’s a real danger that the United States will talk itself into a digital cold war that lasts for decades.

We are at a crossroads: At a conference on U.S.-China relations last month at the University of California at San Diego, a Chinese participant offered a blunt prediction about the future: “We think we are heading toward a partial decoupling of our relationship.” Trump administration officials argue that China has been decoupling itself — denying access to Western firms, even as the United States and its allies provided technology, training and market access.

But what comes next? Trump administration officials hope that progress toward a trade deal might happen at last, now that a meeting with a senior Chinese official has been set for October. But Myron Brilliant, who runs the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s international programs, cautions, “There’s a trust deficit between Washington and Beijing that needs to be restored before there’s progress.”

President Trump reiterated on Wednesday that the administration plans to deny Huawei access to U.S. technology. “It’s a national security concern,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Huawei is a big concern of our military, of our intelligence agencies, and we are not doing business with Huawei.” That leaves a little wiggle room, but not much.

White House officials tell me the Chinese are mistaken if they think the administration is seeking to cripple China technologically. Officials say their goal isn’t a rerun of the anti-Soviet strategy of containment but something more flexible. One administration official says his colleagues sometimes refer to this still-unnamed strategy simply as “the noun.”

The Trump administration’s problem is that it has gutted the national security process that could devise a systematic plan for dealing with China. Instead, policy is highly personalized and shaped by Trump’s erratic decision-making style. “President Trump is our desk officer on China,” says Michael Pillsbury, an informal White House adviser on Asia policy. Strange as it sounds, that’s probably accurate.

This administration’s sharp policy debates on China strategy are exacerbated because there’s no decision-making process to resolve them. On one side are China hawks such as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro; on the other are would-be dealmakers such as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. In the middle is Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who seems to have an instinct for where Trump will eventually land.

“On no issue is the lack of a policy process more visible or dramatic than China,” says Kurt Campbell, who oversaw Asia policy during the Obama administration. He contrasts how the presidents of the world’s two superpowers spent the last weeks of summer. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with top party officials at a beach resort and emerged with a new honorific, the “People’s Leader.” Trump spent those weeks in very public and sometimes self-destructive Twitter barrages, at home and abroad.

Trump has a simple four-word summary of his China baseline, notes one administration official: “Xi is my friend.” Personal diplomacy has its uses, but it’s no substitute for clear policy.

Framing a real China strategy should be Job No. 1 for Trump (and his successor in 2021, if Trump is defeated). Pillsbury described the scope of the challenge in the title of his 2016 book, “The Hundred-Year Marathon.” He told me this week: “We need to change the trajectory that we’re on now. That means running faster and slowing them down.” That’s a good formulation, but both goals require disciplined U.S. policy — something in short supply.

Making good decisions about China (and, implicitly, about the future of global technology) requires a sound U.S. policymaking structure. The best idea I’ve heard is a bipartisan bill introduced this year by Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), which would create a new “Office of Critical Technologies and Security” to oversee decisions about China and other key countries.

Trump was right to take the China trade and technology problem more seriously than his predecessors. But the time for Twitter diplomacy and deals with “my friend” Xi is over. U.S. moves on this chessboard should be guided by clear planning, not whim.

This article was originally published in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph on 08/29/2019

TAZEWELL, Va. — Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., made a dramatic entrance into the Back of the Dragon headquarters in Tazewell Wednesday afternoon.

Jamie Cartwright, who works at the headquarters, drove him in riding shotgun in her “slingshot.”

“This is pretty darn cool,” Warner said as he exited the three-wheel convertible. “Compared to my day job, if we could have kept on riding it would be much more fun.”

Warner made a stop in Tazewell on his seven-day trip across the commonwealth.

Standing in front of the Back of the Dragon’s own 15-ft. dragon installed recently beside the headquarters, he spoke to a crowd gathered for the visit.

Warner praised the two men, Larry Davidson and Danny Addison, whose vision and work created the Back of the Dragon concept and fought for a state designation of the 32-mile trip to Marion across three mountains on winding Rt. 16, which is now bringing tens of thousands of motorcyclists and sports car enthusiasts to the area.

They should be commended for helping bring people to the area and the tourism dollars that follow, he said. “As Larry was saying, it’s not about him, it’s about bringing the whole community together.”

The tourism industry is here to stay, he said, and “we’re not going to see some company come in and buy Back of the Dragon and ship it to China.”

Warner said he always enjoys seeing how Tazewell is growing.

“There have been challenges but I think you guys have turned the corner,” he said, adding that during his visits to the area when he was Governor he usually bought a check but it doesn’t work that way with the federal government where it’s much more difficult to get anything done.

“I would love to come here and give you a report on all the great positive things that are happening in Washington,” he said. “Let me give you that report.”

Then he stood silently. “All right, end of that report.”

“It is sometimes kind of frustrating,” Warner said, as elected officials in Washington spend too much trying to “run each other down” rather than working together to accomplish what is needed.

Warner touched on several topics and answered questions.

He said he is continuing to work on making sure Black Lung benefits won’t disappear and one reason is it’s still a problem for working miners and “we’ve seen an uptick” in cases.

The recent sudden layoffs when Blackjewel Mines went bankrupt, which impacted many miners in Southwest Virginia and left them without benefits or even a paycheck, demonstrated a situation that should not happen, he said.

“Workers should not be at the back of the line when a company goes under,” he said. “Bankruptcy laws need to change so employees come first, not at the back of the line (for money the company may owe debtors).”

Warner also said the federal government has made strides in fighting the opioid crisis, but “issues of addiction are not going away soon … We need to treat addiction as a health care issue.”

He said being a former addict should not impact a person’s ability to find a job.

“We need to make sure federal and state funding continues to be available (to fight drug addiction),” he said.

Other initiatives Warner said he is continuing to address include working with Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) on making sure miners receive the benefits they deserve.

Manchin has led the way with this, he said, and all they want now is for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to allow a vote on the issue.

He also wants to fight outside election interference in American elections with stricter social media identifications and paper ballots as backups if there is a problem at polling stations.

Warner said he is not ready to support any of the candidates for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020.

“I’m going to wait for awhile and see how it shakes out,” he said. “I get worried with Mr. Trump how he disrespects the rule of law and what he is doing to our reputation around the country so I look forward to supporting the Democrat. But I get worried when either political party goes to the extreme.”

On his own possible aspirations for the job, he said this year was not a time for him to throw his hat into the ring.

“I think we need folks in the Senate to work with both parties and I didn’t feel like it was my time,” he said.

“We are very glad to have the Senator here today,” Davidson said. “We feel that’s a very positive factor that we can be recognized for all the hard work that we are doing and our goal is to make this the hub of the motorcycle and sports car communities not only in Southwest Virginia but in the Eastern United States.”

Mike Hymes, Tazewell County Southern District supervisor, said Warner is a long-time friend and he looks out for working people.

“Sen. Warner has always been a friend to Tazewell County and Southwest Virginia,” he said. “He understands working people and he understands the problems that coal miners have. He has always been able to reach across the aisles and get things done.”

Hymes said Warner demonstrated his frustration in Washington when everyone has to be on one team or another.

“He’s on our team,” he said. “We need to keep him on it.”

Eastern District Supervisor Charlie Stacy was on hand and said the visit is good for the area.

“We are tickled to have the Senator come down and see our Back of the Dragon display,” he said, referring to the giant dragon that has proven to be popular. “It’s been a wonderful tourist attraction. Every time I have been here you have people stopping and lining up for photos with the dragon. That’s exactly what we want. We want people coming to Tazewell County.”

Stacy said the Back of the Dragon trail continues to be a big draw to ride on “and we hope to bring more people here to ride on it.”

“It was great having Sen. Warner here with us to see all of the great economic development going on,” said A.J. Robinson, interim tourism director for Tazewell County. “Obviously, the Back of the Dragon brings a tremendous amount of motorcycles to our region and we are happy to have him here to show him what we are doing.”

Tazewell Town Manager Todd Day said it was a “wonderful event” and Warner has always been a friend to the region.

“He’s bringing some inspiration to the community,” he said.

“Anytime we get exposure for the Back of the Dragon or any our attractions in Southwest Virginia it’s a good thing for us, it’s a good thing for the community,” said David Woodard, executive director of the Heart of Appalachia Tourism Authority and chair of the Tazewell County School Board. “It’s also good for economic development.”

Americans are Drowning in $1.5 Trillion of Student Loan Debt. There's One Easy Way Congress Could Help
By Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-VA) and John Thune (R-SD)
in TIME

Every summer, college graduates around the country don their caps and gowns in celebration of a job well done, with the hopes of using their degrees to propel them into a successful career.

But for many young Americans entering the workplace, that first job will also bring with it the first payment on tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt — debt that can take them decades to pay off.

While college is certainly not the only path to a good job, the fact is more than half of all jobs paying over $35,000 require a bachelor’s degree or higher — and that number is only expected to grow.

Americans are following the money. Today more than 44 million Americans have outstanding student loan debt, which has become the one of the biggest consumer debt categories. All told, student debt in the U.S. now totals more than $1.5 trillion.

For South Dakotans, more than 109,000 borrowers hold $3.3 billion in total outstanding federal student loan debt, according to recent data from the Department of Education. That averages out to more than $30,000 per borrower. In Virginia, more than 1 million borrowers hold $38 billion in total outstanding debt. Across America, it’s estimated that the average borrower has more than $37,000 in debt, while more than 2 million student loan borrowers owe $100,000 or more — and these figures continue to rise.

As a result of this growing student debt crisis, many borrowers struggle to pay for day-to-day necessities like rent, groceries or car payments. For others, their student debt stands in the way of buying a home, starting a business or pursuing a new career opportunity.

While the federal government already provides some assistance to those who are eligible, much more can be done to help graduates responsibly pay down their student debt and help employers recruit and retain qualified candidates for good-paying jobs.

That is why we introduced the bipartisan Employer Participation in Repayment Act. Employers can already contribute up to $5,250 each year tax free to help cover the education expenses of students who are working while taking classes. Our legislation would expand this benefit to allow employers to provide the same tax-free contributions to their employees who are no longer in school and help them pay down their student loan debt. Right now, borrowers pay taxes on any contributions their employer makes toward their student loans. Our bill would help employees pay down their student debt more quickly and put more of their hard-earned money toward buying a home, starting a business, or saving for the future.

This is an obvious benefit for graduates, but it would also give employers a new tool and benefit option that would help them attract and retain top-level talent. This is a win-win scenario for graduates, for businesses and for the American economy.

We know this bipartisan legislation isn’t a silver bullet. More must be done to bring down the cost of higher education and expand opportunities for those Americans who choose not to go to college. But for the millions of Americans currently saddled with student debt, our bill would begin to ease that burden almost immediately.

Our bill can pass Congress and get the president’s signature this year. With more than one-third of both the House and the Senate signed on as cosponsors and a wide variety of endorsing stakeholder groups, our bill has earned the type of consensus support that’s not easily found in Washington these days. Several major companies have already committed to introducing student loan repayment benefits if Congress steps up and makes this fix. Let’s give employees the chance to take them up on the offer.

By working together in support of this bill, Democrats and Republicans can help give student borrowers some relief and put them on the pathway to success.

A bipartisan proposal to boost rural America

By Sen. Mark R. Warner

In the late ’90s and early 2000s, the rise of globalization and new technologies dramatically changed our nation’s economy. Small towns once home to thriving factories, plants, and mills saw entire industries disappear along with many jobs, and the families who relied on them to put food on the table. These losses were later compounded by the Great Recession, which hit rural areas particularly hard.

While the economic recovery that began earlier this decade has brought prosperity to some, the growth hasn’t been spread evenly. Here in Virginia, many of the counties that lost businesses during the recession have not made up those losses — and most of those counties are in rural areas. That’s part of the reason why traditional economic indicators like a booming stock market and strengthening GDP growth don’t always reflect the financial reality of everyday Americans.

Despite the many challenges they have faced, folks in rural communities across the country have been banding together and working to revive the towns and neighborhoods they grew up in.

I’ve seen firsthand examples of this throughout Virginia, in places such as the Danville River District, where entrepreneurs, with the help of federal economic development tools such as the historic tax credit, are revitalizing old buildings and opening up restaurants, breweries, and high-tech companies, among a host of other new ventures launched in the last several years.

However, too many communities across our Commonwealth still face a shortage of investment and opportunity. Even as our larger cities grow and expand, we simply can’t afford to leave our smaller and more rural towns behind.

That’s why I was proud to work recently with a bipartisan group of Senators to write and introduce the Rural Jobs Act. Instead of Washington trying to reinvent the wheel, this legislation tackles the issue of rural job creation head-on, using tools we already know to be effective at expanding economic opportunities.

Our legislation will build on the success of an existing program known as the New Markets Tax Credit (NMTC) to kick-start rural economies in Virginia and across the nation, increasing the flow of private dollars to distressed and underserved areas. Currently, the NMTC program gives private investors a modest tax incentive to encourage them to invest in low-income areas. This program has already been proven beneficial for both investors and the communities where they create jobs and build new businesses. In fact, every taxpayer dollar used for the NMTC generates eight times that amount in private investment.

Since its creation in 2003, the NMTC has spurred $1.4 billion in private investment here in Virginia. In Roanoke, for example, the NMTC has supported job-creating renovations at the Claude Moore Culinary School and the Roanoke City Market.

But while the NMTC has created thousands of jobs across the Commonwealth, the truth is, this program could be doing more to support economic growth in less-urban areas.

That’s where our bill comes in. Many Virginians in rural towns are eager to see their communities flourish with innovative businesses. But too often they’re at a disadvantage when competing with larger municipalities. Our legislation would level that playing field.

The Rural Jobs Act would fuel investment in distressed towns throughout Virginia by setting aside $ 1 billion in NMTC funds over two years specifically for areas designated as Rural Job Zones – low-income rural census tracts with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants.

Virginia would have more qualified census tracts than almost any other state, giving towns across Southside and Southwest Virginia an extra boost to help attract business and spur economic development. Importantly, the Rural Jobs Act would work alongside other economic development tools, like the already-successful historic and low-income housing tax credits, and newer ideas, like the “opportunity zones” that were part of the 2017 tax bill, to jumpstart growth across rural America.

The New Markets Tax Credit has already helped create more than 14,500 Virginia jobs. The Rural Jobs Act will help build on this success and make sure rural communities are able to take full advantage of the business-friendly environment for which Virginia is nationally recognized.

This article was originally published in the Daily Press on 07/17/2019

 

U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner is, again, raising Cain over complications that have slowed construction of new veterans health centers in Virginia.

Two years have passed since Congress agreed to fund 28 veteran health facilities nationwide to address a deep backlog of patient wait times. 

Two facilities planned for veteran-rich Virginia, however, are some of the last on the list. 

It’s deeply unfair that Hampton Roads — a region that has given so much to the military — has been placed in the back of the line when it comes time for service members to receive care. 

Sen. Warner, D-Va., is demanding an expedited timeline for a facility planned for South Hampton Roads and another in Fredericksburg. 

The former facility will help ease the workload at the Hampton VA Medical Center, which had some of the longest wait times in the country in 2014. 

Once built, the South Hampton Roads center would include 155,000 square feet and offer primary and specialty care, plus day surgery and other services. 

Hampton VA staff have worked hard to change the way the facility approaches calls for services. Administrators are doing more to hire and retain health care staff while making operational adjustments that will, hopefully, reduce the center’s backlog. 

Yet, construction on the Southside center is being slowed by a tangled web of bureaucracy. 

The delay is due, in part, because of differences between Veterans Affairs, the U.S. General Services Administration and Congress concerning how the projects should be funded. 

The VA considers these projects as long-term leases, even if the ultimate goal is building new facilities. The Congressional Budget Office has said Congress should set aside larger sums of money for the projects upfront, rather than paying smaller amounts year by year. 

Sen. Warner and other lawmakers have tried negotiating a compromise that sets aside less money than recommended by the CBO in order to move the projects forward. 

A VA Office of Inspector General report released July 2 called for reforms in how the VA handles these projects. 

The report reviewed 24 VA projects authorized in 2014. So far, only two facilities are open, and it will take nearly two more years for the rest of the projects to come online. 

Neither the Hampton nor the Fredericksburg centers were included in the July 2 report because those were authorized in 2017, not 2014. However, recommendations about how to expedite the process in the report are considered applicable to the Virginia projects. 

And every person who cares about the military — especially the service members who are based in Hampton Roads — must be dissatisfied with how this process is unfolding. As lawmakers and administrators grapple in Washington, veterans in need of significant care are waiting without help. 

In December 2014, the Hampton VA had the longest wait time in the nation for primary care patients. 

The backlogs in Hampton Roads do not appear to be abating anytime soon, especially considering the veteran population is anticipated to grow nearly 22 percent from 2017 to 2027. 

The current state of affairs at the VA is clearly not working properly. 

Even veterans who appeal decisions involving disability benefits are facing a growing backlog that could exceed 1 million people within a decade. Without clear answers to the problem, veterans may have to wait an average of 8.5 years to have their appeals resolved. 

Walk around our region and doesn’t take too long to realize the military’s outsized presence here. 

Nearly 18 percent of Hampton Roads is comprised of veterans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure far outpaces any other region in Virginia and it is one of the densest populations of veterans anywhere in the country. 

We must become a priority. 

Sen. Warner has sent a letter to the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie as well as the Administrator of the U.S. General Services Administration Emily W. Murphy, demanding the agencies present a plan to speed up the completion of these Virginia facilities. 

Consider contacting the VA at www.va.gov or GSA www.gsa.gov to let them know how important the service members and veterans are to Hampton Roads. 

Their well-being is a standard of how we treat this entire community. And the current state of affairs will not be accepted.

This story originally appeared on WUSA9 on Wednesday, July 10, 2019.

WASHINGTON — A Virginia senator wants answers from the Department of Justice. Wednesday, Mark Warner sent a letter demanding an in-person meeting about a new system that is supposed to save lives across the country. An Amber Alert notifies the public if a child is missing; a Silver Alert notifies the public if a senior is missing. But there was nothing for those in the age gap in between who vanish.

Then, a new law was signed, which created an alert for adults who are missing an endangered. That was more than six months ago. The feds still haven't implemented the Ashanti Alert system.

On September 18, 2017, Ashanti Billie was abducted from a Virginia Naval base. At 19, she was too old for an amber alert and too young for a silver alert. Ashanti was found murdered across state lines in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“The Ashanti Alert Act isn’t' the first time,” Ashanti’s mom, Brandy Billie, told us. “There have been other bills people have tried to get pushed for their loved ones before in years past. For various reasons nothing came of it. Had something came of those, it could have saved our daughter.”

So Brandy and Ashanti’s father, Meltony Billie lobbied Congress to create a notification system for adults who might be in danger and fall into that age gap. Their efforts paid off, when the Ashanti Alert was signed into law on New Year's Eve 2018.

“We just want to help save someone else's loved one -- their mother, father, sister, brother, whoever it is,” Brandy explained.

But they told WUSA9 in reality, the loophole hasn't been fixed because that system isn't operational yet.

“We're wasting time,” Brandy said.

The Billies believe wasting time in this case, could cost lives. They're known now across the country. They’ve become a support system of sorts for others whose loved ones go missing.

“We get texts and we get phone calls and we get emails like 'I'm in this situation, what do I do,'” Meltony described. “You can really only give them words of comfort, but our desire is to do more.”

“To know that there's something in place, a law that could save this person and maybe bring them home, it's heartbreaking all over again because you want to be able to tell that person 'this is in place, this can help you' but it hasn't moved forward yet,” Brandy lamented. “It's not available for you.”

Virginia Senator Mark Warner helped push through the legislation.

“I'm disappointed the Justice Department hasn't gone ahead and implemented this alert,” he told WUSA9.

Wednesday morning, he followed up with this letter demanding an in-person meeting. He wrote he hasn't been able to get "appropriate answers."

“I'm going to stay on them until this system goes live and everyone knows that if someone is disappeared or goes missing, there's the ability for the family then to put them on this alert system,” Warner added. “So we can involve the community in trying to find these disappeared persons.”

WUSA9 tried for weeks to get answers from DOJ, as well. We asked where the Ashanti Alert Act implementation stands, is there a timeline and what are the hold-ups?

We finally got a response. A spokesperson said so far they've identified a program coordinator and assembled an internal working group. But, "there is no set timeline for implementation."

“To get a 'there's not a timeline,' are you serious,” Meltony reacted. “Lives can continue to come up missing. Families can continue to hurt. Families can continue to suffer, just ‘whenever we feel it is time for them to stop suffering, then we'll do something.’”

Virginia did something quickly. Officials enacted a state version of the alert, and three months later, State Police sent out the first one. Since then, they've sent out a handful more. In half of the cases, the victims were found alive in about 24 hours. All were abductions.

DOJ said it is examining how this new system can be created based on existing ones.  

“We don't have to reinvent the wheel,” Brandy questioned. “It's already there.”

In the meantime, the Billies feel this is about much more than a delay in their daughter's legacy.

“Of course it's always going to be about Ashanti, but it's not going to bring her back, and it's our desire to make sure that no one else has to suffer what we've gone through,” Meltony added.

Warner's letter asked for a briefing with key people responsible for the next steps. We don't know yet if the agency will do that and when it might be.

Meanwhile, Ashanti’s accused abductor and killer remains in a federal medical center. There are concerns about Eric Brown’s mental capacity.

Doctors for the federal Bureau of Prisons determined Brown is not yet competent to stand trial. He is currently committed at the Butner Federal Medical Center. Evaluators are supposed to update the judge on Brown’s condition no later than Thursday.

Right now, the court order for commitment at Butner only goes through July 18, 2019. In the past, orders have been extended while staff works to restore Brown’s competency.

Until that happens, Brown’s trial is on hold.

All the good jobs in America are at risk of going to a handful of cities, but there’s still time to stop it
By Sen. Mark R. Warner
in CNBC

The truth is, the opportunity to earn a good life through hard work is moving out of reach for too many Americans. As someone who has benefited greatly from our free enterprise system as an entrepreneur, I recognize that modern American capitalism just isn’t working for enough people in this country.

Over the last 50 years, globalization, automation and disruptive technologies have both destroyed and created millions of jobs. But the benefits have not been spread evenly. The result is an inequality of opportunity, with new, good-paying jobs increasingly concentrated in a handful of urban centers, available to a small, skilled workforce that does not represent the racial, geographic and socioeconomic diversity of our country.

Workers now face not only historic income inequality but great income insecurity due to the growing threat of their jobs being automated, outsourced or eliminated in the next round of corporate mergers. These problems are only made worse by companies that put short-term profits ahead of long-term growth — prioritizing mergers and acquisitions over investments in their physical and human capital.

Unfortunately, the temptation for policymakers is to treat the symptoms of inequality when what we really need is a new economic model to prepare Americans for work in the 21st century.

Let’s address the issue of income insecurity and recognize that many folks aren’t working one job for their entire career or even one job at a time. We need federal and local government to experiment with industry to develop a portable benefits system to follow workers from job to job and gig to gig.

We also need to think big. We need real bipartisan tax reform that rewards hard work and investments in American workers. Now, if a company buys a new robot to replace its workers, that’s an asset. If the company invests in training its workers, that’s an expense. Let’s fix that. While we’re at it, let’s replicate the success of the R&D tax credit and give companies an incentive to train low- and moderate-income workers to help them climb the economic ladder.

We need to do this if we are serious about closing a skills gap that will only get worse with automation. One recent study found that by the year 2030, up to one-third of American workers will need to retrain or change jobs to keep up with disruptions due to automation and a changing economy. We need to radically change our approach to job training in this country, from investments in community and technical colleges, to apprenticeship programs, to savings accounts that aid in lifelong learning.

The American dream might feel like it’s fading away. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Done right, we can rebalance the economic scales a little more in favor of American workers while nurturing the competitive spirit that built the U.S. economy into the dominant global force it is today.

By Sen. Mark R. Warner

It isn’t rocket science. When you have to ride the bus an hour round-trip just to buy fresh vegetables, you eat fewer fresh vegetables. When the grocery store is a two-mile walk, but the fast food restaurant or corner store that only sells processed foods are just down the street, you’re probably going to end up eating more processed foods. Unfortunately, this is the daily reality for an estimated 39 million Americans who live in “food deserts” — areas with no grocery stores within one or more miles in urban regions, and 10 or more miles in rural regions. Here in Hampton Roads, approximately 400,000 thousand people live in food deserts.

Urban food deserts are often found in lower-income communities and communities of color. Individuals who live in these communities with low access to healthy food options are at higher risk for obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

I don’t think it’s right that, in the richest country in the world, a person’s ZIP code should be a sentence to a lifetime of poor nutrition and the health problems that go with it. Families in Virginia deserve reliable access to healthy and affordable foods no matter where they live. That’s why I introduced legislation to help end food deserts here in Virginia and around the country.

This bipartisan legislation would spark investment in food deserts across the country by providing tax credits or grants to providers who open a new store or retrofit an existing store to offer more fresh foods.

A big part of the challenge is convincing grocers to take a chance on investing in a neighborhood that may be lower income and may not have had a grocery store for many years. My bill would provide a one-time tax credit to help grocers “get to yes” on investing in food desert neighborhoods.

But while bringing more grocery stores to food deserts is an important part of the solution, it can’t be our only approach. There is likely no single silver bullet to ending food deserts and the problems associated with them. Just putting some organic produce on the shelf won’t be enough on its own to change nutritional habits in communities where fresh foods have been scarce for many years.

That’s where community organizations and food banks are absolutely essential. Across the country, community organizations are experimenting with mobile food markets and other solutions that reintroduce fresh produce directly into food deserts. This legislation would also support these innovative efforts.

Hampton Roads is surrounded by some of the best sources of fresh food — the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay. We need to rebuild the connections between farmers and the communities that eat their food.

This legislation may not end food deserts once and for all. But that doesn’t mean the federal government shouldn’t use its resources to help solve a problem that affects millions of Americans and contributes to serious, but preventable, health problems.

I reject the notion that only those who can afford a car or a house near a grocery store deserve access to healthy food. If we have the tools to help military families, people of color or people with lower incomes get better access to healthy foods, then we should use them.

The Healthy Food Access for All Americans Act takes these tools that we have — tax credits to help build grocery stores or expand their healthy food sections, grants for food banks and mobile food options — and it puts them to work.

This a solvable problem. It’s time for Congress to do its part and empower communities to end food deserts.

This article was originally published in the Progress-Index on 04/27/2019

FORT LEE — Saying it makes him “angry beyond words” to hear of less-than-desirable living conditions in on-post private housing, Sen. Mark R. Warner called for urgency Thursday in holding the builders of those residences accountable for cleaning and maintaining them.

Warner, D-Va., is co-sponsoring legislation that would increase oversight of those builders who have contracts with military installations to build the dwellings. He came to Fort Lee Thursday afternoon to meet with some of the homeowners and see some of the problems they are facing. Among the issues he saw and heard about were concerns about mold, infestations and overall miscommunication with the builders.

Earlier this year, the Military Family Advisory Network conducted preliminary research via survey and interviews regarding the quality of living in privatized military housing in the U.S. and published the findings in February. According to the report, of 16,779 responses, more than half indicated that they had negative or very negative experiences with privatized military housing. The respondents listed 35 property management companies. Common areas of concern included mold exposure, pest infestation, and structurally unsound homes, while the families felt like their concerns were being ignored. In some cases, the reports finds, families had to threaten legal action or medical impact for their situations to be remediated.

Of those responses, 18% came from families who live in housing maintained by Hunt Military Communities, the company that holds the contract with Fort Lee. Hunt has contracts with several other military installations, and the report did not specifically mention Fort Lee by name.

Amber Machado led Warner on a tour of the home she shares with her husband, Staff Sgt. Nicholas Machado and their young child. She showed him an ant infestation and algae growth on the exterior of the home, and four different types of flooring, evidence of damage to the walls from previous residents, and repairs that had been made well after they moved into their “move-in ready” home.

Amber Machado said they have expressed these and many other grievances to Hunt. For example, when the Machados went to have their washer installed, the laminate flooring adhesive that was already not installed properly was further exposed.

“Hunt’s solution to that was to clean it up with Magic Eraser,” said Nicholas Machado.

At the home of Staff Sgt. Brian Santos and his wife, Patricia, the senator was met with photo evidence of damages to the house. Patricia Santos said she noticed buckling in her floors in September 2018, caused by a leak that spread to her living room. In addition to the floors desperately needing replacement, the leak provided an ideal environment for mold growth, which she tried to get fixed as well.

“The contractor that they sent was not licensed or certified in the remediation of mold,” said Patricia Santos. “No plastic was ever placed around the area. When he lifted the flooring, the mold went everywhere: it went into my couches, into my carpets, onto my dining room table and into my kitchen.”

“It was September 2018 when we noticed the mold. [Hunt] did not finally fix everything until the sixth of April,” said Santos.

Warner, along with Democratic Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia, and Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris of California, has introduced the Ensuring Safe Housing for our Military Act in March, in an effort to address the hazards present in privatized military housing. According to a press release by the senator regarding the announcement of the bill, provisions of the bill include basic allowance for housing costs and additional transparency for service members, creating “stronger oversight mechanisms, allow the military to withhold payments to contractors until issues are resolved.”

Immediately following the home tour, Warner held a roundtable to hear more from families about their living conditions.

The roundtable led to other military members expressing their issues with Hunt ranging from maintenance members coming in to make repairs without notice, to miscommunications within Hunt’s offices resulting in the military member not having any housing, to infants being hospitalized for respiratory issues due to mold. Throughout the meeting, Warner articulated his sympathy with the servicemembers and frustration with the private housing companies that often have lengthy contracts with the military bases and provide inadequate service.

“If I was living in a home with mold and had no recourse, it makes me angry beyond words.” Warner said. “We will make the systemic change, but if some of these folks have to go back with young kids to sleep tonight in a house with mold, there has to be this sense of urgency to get this changed.”

Warner’s stop at Fort Lee was part of a two-day visit to the Richmond area that included a walkthrough of the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site, where evidence of a multi-billion dollar maintenance backlog across the entire National Park Service manifests, as more than $700,000 in overdue maintenance needs have not been addressed.