Oregon U.S. Representative District Five Kurt Schrader held a wide ranging town hall meeting with local residents Tuesday evening. Schrader told the respectable sized crowd that although the Congress looks hopelessly log-jammed, there is hope demonstrated by the passage the Violence Against Women Act and the fact that both the House and the Senate have passed proposed federal budgets but that no one should delude themselves into believing that either proposal would pass in the other house. Which takes us to the next fiscal challenge – the end of the fiscal year on September 30th. Schrader says this year’s federal budget is simply last year’s budget replicated for another year by what’s called a “continuing resolution.”
Schrader said legislative priorities should be getting the country’s debt headed downward, removing tax loops holes and wasteful incentives to create greater tax equity and continue to reform health care. He predicted that the country’s wrestling with gun related issues will boil down to comprehensive background checks for buyers but he doubts it would go much beyond that. Shrader said although he’s a National Rifle Association member he considers the NRA Executive Director a “complete idiot.” Schrader told the crowd that he doesn’t support banning the sale of assault weapons nor limiting the size of gun clips since most guns, even those that aren’t assault weapons, have available high capacity magazines. Schrader reiterated that he fully supports the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution which guarantees a citizen’s right to bear arms.
Taking questions from residents, Schrader said that closing the U.S. Post Office’s mail processing center in Salem will mean it’ll take several days for mail to cross any town in the region, including Newport, since all mail would be processed at mail centers in Eugene and Portland. He said there are forces at work to privatize the post office and turn it into a five day a week operation. Schrader says he opposes privatizing the post office which could be prevented by various changes in how post office revenues are used. Critics of post office cutbacks, which include ending Saturday delivery, have stated that the post office would be running smoothly if it didn’t have to funnel revenues into investment accounts for retirees who are not expected to retire for another fifty years. One post office official once lamented that they’re setting aside revenues for the retirement of postal workers not yet born.
On natural resources, Schrader said the country must invest in green energy which includes wave energy, but not the way it’s being handled within Oregon’s Territorial Sea Plan which goes out three miles from the beach. Schrader pointed out that a long series of public hearings were held to compile a list of possible wave energy sites along the coast – but that one site was added at the last minute by LCDC staff without any involvement from the fishing industry. Schrader said he told Governor Kitzhaber’s chief aide for natural resources that “they blew it” by allowing last minute changes to the Territorial Sea Plan without checking with fishermen first. That’s not the right way to do things. We need to protect our fishing industry,” he said.
Schrader agreed with a suggestion by Lincoln County Commissioner Doug Hunt that sustainable forestry should be Oregon’s foremost management strategy which can’t help but improve the financial condition of rural counties.
Schrader also agreed with a man in the audience that America should be rebuilding it’s roads, highways, schools, bridges and ports at home rather than doing it overseas as it relates to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As for bringing down the cost of health care, Schrader made it clear that the Affordable Care Act (often called Obamacare) will still see most American workers and their families being covered by insurance policies provided by their employers. Schrader said he favors the creation of Coordinated Care Organizations (CCO), as have been launched here in Oregon, which are poised to bring down the cost of medical care for the poor and indigent. Schrader said not only is it possible to glean $700 billion in savings through the Affordable Care Act, there’s probably another $700 billion that could be cut by ending fraud and abuse of the system and being able to negotiate drug prices as is done for veterans by the VA.
Social Security finally popped up with a resident asking where Schrader stood on Social Security reform. Schrader said Social Security is not adding to the country’s debt problem. He reminded the crowd that Social Security is rock solid through the year 2033. But after that, cuts of 25% in benefits could be expected. But he quickly added that Social Security could be solvent far into the future if the social security payroll deduction was extended higher up the income ladder. Right now it’s stuck at $106,000 a year. Schrader said Social Security could be fortified by means testing recipients who are wealthy or rather well off, and by raising the minimum age at which retirees can tap into the fund. He said all that should be up for discussion “because no one I know in Congress is in any way inclined to weaken Social Security.”
The conversation then turned toward Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. It’s money that is paid to Americans who suffer a physical or medical disability that prevents them from working full time or from working at all. One resident said there is tremendous waste and fraud in the SSI system. Schrader agreed adding that the SSI fund is going broke at a rapid rate and that something must be done about it, while at the same time speeding up access to SSI for those who truly need help. He said 2/3 of applicants are initially turned away who then have to fight the system for up to two years to get the benefits they truly qualify for.
Schrader agreed with a man in the audience who called for simplifying the tax code. Schrader said lobbyists descend on the Congress with all kinds of requests for tax reductions, tax loop holes, investment credits or other means to avoid paying money into the U.S.Treasury. Schrader says he remembers the day when he could fill out his own tax return. “But today,” he decried, “the tax code is overwhelming, shot through with so many complicated ways at looking at income and losses, accelerated depreciation and special allowances for certain write-offs, I don’t even try. I hire an expert.”
The discussion then turned back around to the stalemate in Congress. Schrader said the sequester situation is not the way to go. He said “Savaging defense and slashing social programs doesn’t help the country or our kids. There is a smarter way to take care of our debt while growing the economy. President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner are only $50 billion apart on their two budgets. You’d think they could work it out.”
After the town hall, Schrader told reporters that there is a growing list of members of the House and the Senate, including himself, who are joining what’s called the “No Label” movement which is drafting legislation and forming coalitions to get the Congress to work together on specific issues, rather than battling over political philosophies.
Schrader will continue his visit to the Newport area Wednesday by meeting with local commercial and recreation industry fishers, get a tour of the new International Terminal, a tour of Newport’s Art Deco District, visit some local downtown businesses and then a visit to Carrie Newell’s Whale, Sea Life and Shark Museum in Depoe Bay.