By Niki Tsongas

With so many of the headlines coming out of Washington focused on shutdowns and sequestration, it can be easy to forget that 2013 included some significant decisions and events that will have a profound impact on Massachusetts and the nation.

In the midst of partisan stalemate, fueled by the House Republican leadership's refusal to bring many important bills to the floor for a vote, Congress was able to come together on several key national issues.

To start the year, a bipartisan compromise was reached to extend middle-class tax cuts permanently, asking the wealthiest to pay their fair share. By protecting the middle class we were able to provide reassurance for the future and stability of so many American families.

February saw Congress reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), strengthening the ability of the federal government, the states, law enforcement, and service providers to combat domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking. It included provisions to ensure that all victims of domestic violence receive the protection they need -- including providing new safeguards, based on findings from experts in the field, for Native Americans, legal immigrants and members of the LGBT community.

As a strong supporter of VAWA, I believe this legislation is necessary to protect victims of domestic violence, enable women to escape abusive relationships, and to take another step forward for women's rights.


Focus on military

Also in 2013, Congress made unprecedented changes that prevent and combat sexual assault in our armed forces. The final, passed 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which sets policy for the Department of Defense, included a multitude of provisions authored by myself and Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH). Our changes offer considerable momentum toward changing the deep-rooted and flawed culture that has allowed these crimes to pervade our armed forces for far too long.

The provisions make historic changes to commander authority by removing the ability to overturn a jury verdict. The law now mandates a dishonorable discharge for those convicted of sexual assault; ensures that every victim of military sexual assault gets an attorney; and extends vital support services to members of the Coast Guard. This NDAA is necessary to support survivors and ensure the Pentagon continues important sexual assault prevention measures.

The Supreme Court also took historic action, ruling the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional and returned marriage equality to the state of California this past June. Throughout 2013, I had joined my colleagues in three "friend of the court" briefs challenging the constitutionality of DOMA, which prevented federal recognition of same sex marriage.

The Supreme Court ruling was a victory for equality and a victory for the American family. Our nation is stronger for its commitment to defending the rights and human dignity of all people. Massachusetts can be proud that it played a pioneering role in shining a national spotlight on this issue.

Local initiatives

Locally, Washington's impact was felt across our region in 2013, by our businesses, organizations and military installations.

At my invitation, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh visited Hanscom Air Force Base and MIT's Lincoln Labs in November for a firsthand look at the remarkable work being done there in support of our service members. One week later, Army Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno made a similar visit to Natick Soldier Systems Center. Both military leaders were impressed by Massachusetts' unique ecosystem of military, business and academia that makes us a hub of innovation.

Federal funding announcements sparked progress in several areas such as education and economic and urban development this past year, a testament to the hard work of those awarded organizations.

The Merrimack Valley Workforce Investment Board was one of only 16 recipients nationwide for the EPA's Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training Program, enabling them to train and place students in environmental jobs. And Mt. Wachusett Community College in Gardner was awarded a competitive National Endowment for the Humanities grant to support the institution's humanities initiative. 

Haverhill saw the U.S. Department of Transportation finalize plans for repairing the Merrimack River Bridge and communities like Pepperell and Lunenburg were awarded firefighter grants to update equipment and training.

But our work is far from done. Jobs and the economy remain front and center, with lawmakers and constituents alike focused on what can be done to develop our workforce, keep jobs on American soil and embrace the next generation of energy and innovation. And we must act on comprehensive immigration reform, which will significantly impact millions of Americans, our economy and the future success of this country.

As we look ahead to 2014, we can find confidence in the fact that beyond the dominant headlines of 2013 were some significant milestones in Washington and in Massachusetts.

About the author

U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Lowell, represents the 3rd Congressional District. She is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and has championed legislation to fight sexual assault in the military.