Self-described as both an independent and conservative Democrat, Higgins is also considered a centrist. Higgins supports the strengthening of Social Security in the United States, and has been a proponent for nationwide universal healthcare. He further supports national and regional economic development. Previously being pro-life, Higgins' position is now pro-choice. He has also supported efforts for peace in many areas of the world, and has been actively involved in the Northern Ireland peace process.
A native of South Buffalo, Higgins served on the Buffalo Common Council (city council) from 1988 to 1993, representing the South District. Higgins mentioned that his grandparents are from Ireland.
In 1993, during his final year on the Council, Higgins was rated “Buffalo's Best Lawmaker” in a 1993 Buffalo News Survey of Western New York business and community leaders. Responding to the survey were 158 business, community, and government leaders in Western New York. Higgins earned the highest rating of any political leader with a 3.81 out of a possible score of 5. The Buffalo News stated in regard to Higgins being named top lawmaker, "During his 5 1/2 years on the Council, he has earned a reputation as a thoughtful, soft-spoken lawmaker who has paid attention to both district and citywide concerns." One community leader stated, "Brian is a very bright, responsible public official," while a government leader is quoted, saying of Higgins, "The best Councilman in Buffalo. Has great vision."
Higgins graduated from Buffalo State College with a B.A. in political science in 1984. He later received an M.A. in history from Buffalo State College in 1995, and an M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1996. Higgins has also instructed courses on state and local government, and the economic history of Buffalo and Western New York, in the departments of history and economics at Buffalo State College. Further, he served as the 145th District representative to the New York State Assembly from 1999 through 2004.
Higgins has positioned himself as a centrist. He describes himself as "the most independent and conservative Democrat in [the] New York" delegation. He ran for the Assembly on both the Democratic and Conservative party lines, and in the House, he often agrees with Republicans on issues regarding national security, immigration, and gun control.
Higgins is a member of the New Democrat Coalition. He describes himself as a pro-union moderate who wants to spur job growth. He has said he supports allowing seniors to buy prescription drugs from Canada, and one of his priorities in Congress will be to push for legislation allowing the government to negotiate for volume discounts on drugs. He has also said he wants Congress to repeal President George W. Bush's tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals.
He procured $279 million over 50 years for Erie County's various governments and agencies from the New York Power Authority as part of the Niagara Power Project 50-year relicensing agreement. Higgins is an advocate for economic development and job creation, and played a pivotal role through his membership on the House's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in securing approval for the construction of a new federal courthouse in downtown Buffalo.
Higgins strongly advocates for increased federal funding for cancer research, as Buffalo is home to Roswell Park Cancer Institute, the nation's first major medical facility devoted exclusively to treating cancer, with cancer research as its main mission.
In 2006, Higgins and Congressmen James T. Walsh and Tim Murphy met with several government leaders in Ireland in which there was a confirmation announcement of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) weapons decommissioning. Government leaders with whom the three congressmen met included Irish Foreign Minister Dermot Ahern, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain, US Ambassador to Ireland James C. Kenny, US Ambassador to the United Kingdom Robert H. Tuttle, and the leadership of each of the main political parties involved in the process for peace.
Regarding Higgins' visit to Ireland in association with the peace talks, Higgins stated on his congressional website on January 20, 2006:
I was honored to represent the United States at this important moment in the Irish peace process. My colleagues and I went to Ireland and the United Kingdom to focus international intention on the stalled negotiations and to build momentum for the fulfillment of the Good Friday Accords. While we met with leaders from different nationalities, political parties, and religious faiths, each discussion was filled with hope and the common belief that lasting peace can finally reach all residents of Northern Ireland.
Higgins has also supported efforts for peace in South Asia and Africa, and the Middle East, including places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Darfur.
In 2007, Higgins reportedly played a pivotal behind-the-scenes role in saving St. Joseph's Hospital in Cheektowaga from closure as proposed by the New York State Commission on Health Facilities in the 21st Century. For 2007, Higgins received an "A+" on the 2007 Congressional Scorecard on middle-class issues from the Drum Major Institute, which describes itself as "providing the ideas that fuel the progressive movement."
Higgins was named by several media outlets as one of the leading candidates to replace Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate after she became Secretary of State in an Obama Administration. He was one of six candidates on New York Governor David Paterson's "short list" for the position; a Web poll conducted by WKBW-TV showed 75% of respondents on the station's website would support Higgins being nominated. In the end, Paterson instead appointed Hudson Valley Congresswoman Kirsten Gillibrand. On January 31, 2009, Higgins led a delegation of Western New York elected leaders in welcoming Gillibrand to the region, moderating an economic roundtable discussion held at the Bioinformatics Center of Excellence, located on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
In December 2008, after only two terms in the House of Representatives, Higgins secured a spot on the United States House Committee on Ways and Means, considered to be one of the most important and powerful committees in Congress due to its wide jurisdiction. Higgins was subsequently appointed to serve on the Ways and Means Committee's subcommittee on Select Revenue Measures, as well as its subcommittee on Oversight. Since the GOP takeover of the House following the 2010 midterm election, Higgins left the Ways and Means Committee (while maintaining a right to return) and became a member of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs and the United States House Committee on Homeland Security. On the latter, Higgins quickly rose to the position of Ranking Member of the United States House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence.
On a previous policy position from his website, Higgins said, "For too long, the Social Security Administration has underfunded and understaffed hearing offices in Western New York...citizens who have contributed to the Social Security system throughout their lives should have proper customer service when their benefits come due.”
In 2010, Higgins, along with many other congressional members, sent a letter to President Barack Obama encouraging him to keep social security, and make it stronger, saying “We write today to express our strong support for Social Security and our view that it should be strengthened. We oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits, including raising the retirement age. We also oppose any effort to privatize Social Security, in whole or in part...cutting Social Security benefits beyond the already scheduled increase in the retirement age from 65 to 67 would create even more needless hardship for millions of vulnerable Americans.” This was in response to President Obama giving the task of cutting government spending to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, on October 15, 2010. The letter also stressed that Social Security is “prohibited by law from adding to the national budget deficit.”
Higgins, therefore, is a protector of Social Security and is against privatization of it. Further, he "support[s] full funding for the Social Security Administration to process checks on time; fight against waste, fraud, and abuse; and combat unacceptable claims backlogs." Higgins' district includes nearly 150,000 senior citizens.
Serious about accountability regarding the nation's Social Security Administration, Higgins introduced related legislation, House Resolution (HR) 3997, in February 2014. The bill is aimed at requiring the Social Security Commissioner to submit an estimated annual budget; to submit the estimated budget to Congress prior to first submitting it to the President; to prohibit the closing or limitation of field offices and hearing offices without justification; following particular procedures related to closings, consolidations, and/or public limitations; and other requirements.
While serving in the New York State Assembly from 1999 to 2004, Higgins consistently voted pro-life. Since running for Congress in 2004, Higgins identifies himself as pro-choice. In 2006, Higgins was given a rating of 9% by the NRLC, which indicates a pro-choice stance. Higgins received a score of 100% (a perfect score) from Planned Parenthood in 2012 and from NARAL Pro-Choice America in 2011.
Higgins voted for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. In June 2012, Higgins said he believed that health care providers will have to embrace "Accountable Care Organizations, comparative effectiveness research – which studies various treatments to determine what works best – and other changes.” He believed that this should have been done decades ago.
On his congressional website, Higgins has stated that "there is no question that [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act] was needed." He further stated that it is a beginning of health care reform in the United States.
Higgins strongly believes in a national healthcare program, with a “public option,” a plan in which the government provides healthcare which would compete with other businesses’ plans. A letter written by a group of representatives to Senator Harry Reid, who was then the Senate Majority Leader, which Higgins signed stated, “As the Senate continues to work on health reform legislation, we strongly urge you to consider including a public option." The American Public Health Association gave Higgins a perfect rating of 100% in 2009.
It was reported that Higgins was “proposing something unprecedented in this era of $1.3 trillion annual deficits: a $1.25 trillion, five-year plan to rebuild the nation's roads, bridges, railroads, ports and airports.” Higgins' congressional website states the monetary figure as $1.2 trillion for these endeavors. The bill, entitled the Nation Building Here at Home Act and based on research by the New America Foundation, would cost significantly more than President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package. Higgins said that he wants to rebuild the US "as we've rebuilt other countries - Iraq and Afghanistan - in recent years." He also stated that it is not a stimulus bill, but a "nation-building bill."
Higgins is a supporter of education, including early education through higher education. Higgins has stated, "Every child has a right to a quality education." Ensuring that young people have a quality early education, and that legislators are supportive of education for individuals in primary, elementary, secondary, and higher educational institutions are among Higgins' aims. Higgins is a proponent regarding congressional support for measures that increase student achievement, but which also reward success rather than punish failure, as the No Child Left Behind Act has done. Higgins further believes that financial barriers to education should not hinder any individual from pursuing higher education.
Higgins supports maintaining lower interest rates on loans incurred by college and university students. Higgins cosponsored two bills, H.R. 3826 and H.R. 4816, in efforts to extend the period of time in maintaining the reduced 3.4% interest rate on student loans. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act was also supported by Higgins in 2007, a bill passed into law that included the reduced 3.4% interest rate on subsidized Stafford student loans through the end of the 2012 academic year.
Jack Quinn, a moderate Republican who had represented the heavily Democratic 27th since 1993, unexpectedly announced his retirement in 2004. In April 2004, Higgins entered the race, and narrowly defeated then-Erie County Comptroller Nancy Naples. Even after redistricting following the 2000 census, the district was made slightly friendlier for Quinn (in part, by adding mostly rural Chautauqua County), but was still at the time the most Democratic district in the country to be represented by a Republican. The district has since reverted to form, and Higgins has been reelected three times against Republican opposition, with 2008 and 2010 opponents having posted six-figure fundraising numbers. In both 2006 and 2008, Higgins garnered more than 70% of the vote.
For his first four terms, Higgins represented the southern two-thirds of Buffalo, as well as Chautauqua County. Higgins' district was drawn by the federal special master to be much more compact and Democratic in the 2012 redistricting. He picked up all of Buffalo, as well as several inner-ring suburbs that used to be in the territory of Louise Slaughter, and returning Chautauqua County to its traditional Southern Tier district. He also picked up several communities in Niagara County, including all of North Tonawanda and all but a handful of residents in Niagara Falls.
Higgins has received financial contributions for his campaigns from many business executives in Western New York throughout his tenure in Congress. In 2012, Higgins' re-election committee raised more than $1,000,000, with approximately 2/3 of that amount coming from individual donors, representing major businesses in Western New York.
Higgins resides in South Buffalo with his wife, Mary Jane. He has two adult children, Maeve and John.