Sharp exchanges mark Himes' forum in Westport
U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, covered a lot of controversial ground during a 90-minute Town Hall meeting Sunday afternoon in the Westport Public Library before a sometimes raucous, standing-room-only crowd.
The two-term congressman, responding to questions from the audience, touched on the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act; the vote by Congress to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt; the "Bush tax cuts," which are set to expire Dec. 31; the sluggish economy; potential reforms to Social Security and Medicare, and the "sequestration cuts" scheduled to take effect in December because a congressional "super committee" couldn't reach agreement on how to reduce the national deficit.
But the most heated part of the meeting came when Bob Mac Guffie of Fairfield took to the microphone to criticize Himes for the national debt increasing from $10 trillion in January 2009 to $15 trillion today.
Mac Guffie said Himes' votes had increased the debt by $5 trillion in three years and asked Himes to defend that and tell the audience why he shouldn't "step down." Himes said Mac Guffie was "flat-out wrong" in saying that every one of his votes increased the national debt, but Mac Guffie interrupted him.
"You voted for the stimulus and every continuing [budget] resolution. Don't tell us you didn't vote for $5 trillion of debt. You did. You did!" Mac Guffie said, later interrupting Himes again to claim that Himes was "lying" to the audience by saying unfunded wars in Iraq and Afghanistan played a major role in the debt increasing by $5 trillion in the past three years.
Himes said he would "take ownership" of his vote for President Obama's $787 billion stimulus bill, adding that nations in Europe that implemented austerity measures fell into recession. Himes said the stimulus bill and actions by the Federal Reserve deserved credit for changing an economy that was losing 700,000 jobs a month to an economy that was adding 100,000 jobs a month. He added that the stimulus bill constituted 60 percent spending and 40 percent tax cuts.
Himes, though, said the biggest reasons for the national debt rising to $15 trillion have been the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, tax cuts from 2001 to 2003, a prescription drug benefit in Medicare enacted prior to January 2009, and an economy that "spiraled into a massive recession, circling the drain, the quarter I got in."
The sharp exchanges between Himes and Mac Guffie were punctuated by boisterous cat calls from the audience, and the next speaker congratulated Himes for maintaining his composure. Himes said he and Mac Guffie "go back a couple of years and we've gotten heated in our discussions."
Earlier, Himes said the federal government was borrowing money at close to 0 percent interest rates and that the nations's infrastructure needed to be improved and people needed jobs.
Himes said he doesn't favor allowing the "Bush tax cuts" to expire on Dec. 31, which would change tax rates to the levels under former President Bill Clinton. "That size of a tax increase, at this point of our recovery, is not a good idea," Himes said.
Himes spoke in favor of the Affordable Care Act, saying tens of millions of Americans who don't have health insurance will now have access to it and that insurance companies won't be able to deny insurance to someone because he or she has a pre-existing condition. Addressing an audience member's concern that the bill includes a "payment advisory board" that could deny claims based on "insufficient benefit" to a patient, Himes said the board would make decisions about what Medicare pays for. He said legislators want money "going toward treatment and drugs that have been shown to be effective." In other remarks, Himes said:
- He is on the verge of co-sponsoring legislation that would exempt Christian scientists from purchasing health care insurance.
- He voted against holding Holder in contempt of Congress because he thought the congressional committee headed by Darrell Issa, R-Calif., acted too quickly in scheduling the vote. He said 17 Democrats who voted in favor of contempt were in "NRA-heavy districts," referring to the National Rifle Association.
- He couldn't understand Republican opposition to the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act, saying the mandate was "all about personal responsibility," and changes the current system of forcing people to pay health-care costs of someone who could afford health insurance but has chosen not to spend money on it.
- He couldn't understand the NRA's hostility to Obama, saying the president "did one thing relative to guns -- sign a bill making it legal for you to carry a gun in national parks."
- The economy in the last quarter of 2008 was contracting at a rate of 8 percent and the nation was losing 700,000 jobs a month when Obama was elected. "Today, we've seen 26 months of job growth ... It's hard to argue with the proposition that acts of Congress and the Federal Reserve helped us turn the corner."
- The "Fast and Furious" program being investigated by Issa's committee was "an outrage" and "mind-boggingly stupid." But, Himes added, "In my mind, the fact the vote [for contempt] was held so quickly was political."
- The super committee's failure to reach consensus on deficit reduction will trigger "sequestration cuts" in December, which Himes said will amount to $1.2 trillion over 10 years and would plunge the nation back into a recession. He said the sequestration cuts were "not designed to be smart," but rather "a sword over the head" of Congress.
Himes said he was one of 38 House members to vote for a deficit-reduction plan known as "Simpson Bowles," which he termed "a very good start on the grand bargain" of reducing the deficit through a combination of tax increases and reductions in projected spending increases.
He said a deficit reduction deal could be reached if Democrats stomach reforms to entitlement programs and Republicans stomach tax increases. He said he was optimistic Congress would avoid the sequestration cuts by reaching an agreement after the November election that looks like Simpson Bowles.
Himes said Congress has become "a hyper-partisan environment," but last week was "unusual ... in that we actually got some things done." He said Congress approved a two-year extension of a transportation bill that he said would fund repairs to infrastructure and had 2 million jobs "hanging in the balance."
Congress also last week approved a one-year extension of the current interest rates on student loans, he noted.
But Himes indicated those successful votes wouldn't be the norm over the next five months. "The sad fact is, between now and November, you're not likely to see a lot more substantive legislation in Congress," he said.