200 turn out to hear Himes talk about impeachment, health care
Impeachment, health care, climate change, trade wars, the corrosive effects of partisanship in Washington — a wide range of issues were discussed as U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4th District, took questions from a largely supportive audience of more than 200 on Saturday at the Ridgefield Library.
“We’re in a remarkably polarized, angry time,” Himes said in brief introductory remarks, before moving on to audience questions.
But, he assured his audience, “The federal government continues to function in customary ways.”
Impeachment? A few asked Himes about it.
“I voted for the recent rule package,” Himes said. He had joined other House Democrats in setting up procedures that will allow the impeachment inquiry to proceed in what they feel is a fair manner — allowing Republicans on committees equal time to ask questions. While the GOP can request witnesses, the Democrats, with more votes on various House committees, will have control over who is called to testify.
“Where is the crime?” asked one audience member. The impeachment proceedings against presidents Nixon and Clinton had been triggered by real crimes, but after three years of the Mueller investigation cleared the president, the questioner said, now Democrats are pursuing impeachment effort without a real reason.
“Democrats are spending all your time trying to find a crime” that can be used to drive President Donald Trump from office, the audience member claimed, and no work to benefit the American people is getting done.
Himes disputed that Democrats are getting nothing done, directing the audience’s attention to sheets that had been placed on chairs before the event, listing bills passed by the House of Representatives — five guns-safety bills, 48 environmental bills, 41 transportation and infrastructure bills, 90 education and workforce bills, 36 immigration bills, 40 health care bills, 51 national security bills, 24 civil and human rights bills. He fingered the Senate’s Republican leader as responsible for a lack of action.
“Every single one of these has not been taken up in Mitch McConnell’s Senate,” Himes said.
Abuse of power
He also challenged the audience member’s basic premise.
“It’s not accurate to say Mueller cleared the president of crimes,” Himes said.
He urged people to read the Mueller report, volumes I and II.
“Mueller specifically enumerates 10 counts of obstruction of justice — which is a crime,” Himes said.
As for the impeachment inquiry, although initial interviewing has been behind closed doors — drawing Republican objections — it would move to open hearings that people can watch on television and judge for themselves, he said.
Himes did offer some of his own perspective.
“The president used our taxpayers’ ” funds, held them back “and pressured and extorted the Ukrainian president” to serve Trump’s own political re-election goals.
“That is a massive abuse of power, in my view,” Himes said.
In response to another question on the likely impeachment of Trump, Himes said: “The probability is he will not be convicted in the Senate.”
Still, he believes it is important for Congress to go through the procedure and make clear what is and isn’t acceptable behavior by the president — even if it ends up being politically costly for Democrats.
“When I, in June, came out in favor of the impeachment inquiry,” Himes said, “I did it thinking it was a politically unwise thing to do.”
Audible audience reaction during the exchanges showed a handful of people in support of the audience member’s doubts about the impeachment inquiry, and the vast majority behind Himes in his criticism of Trump’s actions.
In the back-and-forth with his audience, however, Himes did highlight a couple of areas where he is supportive of — or at least not in disagreement with — Trump.
“The president is not wrong on China,” Himes said.
“They’ve stolen our I.P.,” he said, referring to companies’ intellectual property. “...broken into corporate computer systems.”
But Himes doesn’t support all aspects of the president’s trade war.
“Tariffs, the way he’s using them, have devastated the American farming community,” he said.
He does support addressing the real problem of China’s unscrupulous economic behavior.
“The president is right about that,” Himes said.
While he finds many aspects of the president’s Middle East policy are problematic, Himes said, “I was grateful when the president called off the attack on Iran.”
In his introductory remarks, Himes ran through a quick litany of what he views as Washington’s failures and limited successes.
“We’re actually moving backwards on climate change,” he said. “We’re not making progress on the budget issues Washington has.”
And despite efforts to address the opioid crisis, “50,000 Americans are dying as a result of overdoses,” he said — “roughly the same number of Americans we lost in the entire Vietnam War.”
The federal government is working to “make sure every police officer is equipped with Narcan, that miracle antidote,” Himes said. “We’re beginning to see a tapering off — not a dramatic decrease — in the number of opioid deaths.”
As a sample of bipartisan collaboration, he cited passage of “The First Step Act” which is leading to the release of people jailed for nonviolent drug crimes — many of them under the draconian 1990s “three strikes and you’re out” law.
“People incarcerated for life for dealing small amounts of drugs — needless to say, that had a racial element,” Himes said.
After passage in the House, “Cory Booker and Rand Paul were leaders in the Senate,” Himes said, noting that Democrat Booker and Republican Paul don’t often find common ground.
Ending the imprisonment of so many people will result in “huge taxpayer savings to all of us,” he added.
Bipartisan cooperation had also led the passage “after way too long a delay” of legislation renewing federal money to cover the medical costs of first responders with health problems related to their efforts on 9/11 and after at the site of the World Trade Center attacks.
So, Himes has hope for limited progress. “I do think there’s an opportunity for a few things to get done before 2020,” he said.
At the top of that list is an effort to “alter the way drugs are priced in this country, pharmaceuticals,” Himes said.
He has some optimism since it was an issue Democratic House leaders, Republicans in the Senate, and Trump have all said publicly they want to address.
Another issue he’s hopeful on is USMCA, a trade agreement involving the U.S., Mexicao and Canada that he described as “version 2.0 of NAFTA” — the previous North American Free Trade Agreement. Among the benefits sought will be “better working conditions for Mexicans, better environmental enforcement.”
Financing for “transportation infrastructure” improvements might get done.
Himes listed some other concerns where the Democratic House has acted, but the Republican Senate has not — and he was not hopeful they would address any time soon.
One area close to Himes’ heart is gun safety, and information he distributed said the House had passed “five gun-safety bills” including two addressing background checks on gun sales.
The goal is “No matter matter how you choose to exercise your Second Amendment rights, you will be subject to a background check,” he said.
Background checks are “supported by 95 percent of Americans,” Himes said, but the legislation that passed in the House “won’t get to the floor” for a vote in the Senate
“The Senate is a judicial appointments machine,” he said.
Russians on Facebook
Himes and his team distributed printouts of advertisements the Russians had put on Facebook before the 2016 election. Among them were: “Satan: I win if Clinton wins! Jesus: Not if I can help it!” and “Like and share if you want the burka banned in America” and “Never forget that the Black Panthers group formed to protect black people from KKK was dismantled by the US government but the KKK exists today.”
The Russians’ ads — “attempting to poke at the racial fissures, the feelings about Muslims” — seemed to have a goal of “dividing Americans,” he said.
“They’re going to do it again,” Himes warned. ”If they don’t the Chinese or the North Koreans will.”
Asked about climate change legislation, Himes praised an approach that attempts to make the full costs of fossil fuel energy — including pollution — reflected in the price, either through “cap and trade or a carbon tax designed to raise the cost of carbon to counter the environmental costs.”
He said a carbon tax could be returned to the American people — though “fully refundable dividends.”
This returning of the money to the citizens — rather than spending it — appeals to politicians on the right, he said, while the proposal also had a “progressive quality” appealing to the left since wealthier people tend to have “higher carbon footprints” and would pay more in, but get the same size dividend as everyone else.
He backed government funding for “basic research” on energy problems, and then allowing entrepreneurs in the for-profit marketplace to use what’s learned to create innovations that would reduce reliance pollution-heavy forms of energy generation.
“We need to do research on energy storage,” he said, so alternative sources like wind and solar will be useful all the time, and not just when “the sun shines” or the wind blows.
He held up his cellphone — a seeming marvel of marketplace innovation with all its capabilities.
“Everything cool about this device came out of government research,” he said. “Satellites, voice recognition…”
Medicare for All
A questioner asked Himes about “Medicare for All” — saying the current “system is costing us $3.5 trillion this year” and is expected to cost more and more as time goes on.
“Will I co-sponsor Medicare for All? No,” Himes said.
But he’s not opposed to it goals, he said, so much as worried about getting something through the daunting political process any health care change will face.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with Medicare for All,” he said.
“It gets painted by the right as some crazy socialist idea” — and that’s not true, he said.
As an example he pointed to Elizabeth Warren’s response to demands that she show how she proposed to pay for Medicare for All. Her plan not only raises taxes — though pointedly avoiding tax hikes on middle class — it also relies on sizable reductions to the payments hospitals and doctors would receive.
Himes is uneasy with that approach.
“We should start by finding very obvious savings,” he said.
Health care is an area that people feel very strongly about, and an area where political solutions are practical only if they can make it through a gauntlet of passionate opposition and false claims, Himes said.
He recalled when his support of the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act had him standing before angry town hall meetings and being attacked by citizens repeating crazy arguments — “You’re going to kill grandma!” — they’d heard in the highly partisan debate.
Medicare for All would involve taking down and replacing the current employer-based private insurance system, which is costly but serves many Americans — and a portion of them will be very alarmed had have a system their accustomed to replaced with a new government-run program, he said.
Himes favors leaving the private health insurance system in operation, but providing a public option to compete with it.
“There is a much smarter way to do this: say any American can buy into Medicare — if they want to,” Himes said.
Asked about guns, Himes admitted to frustration with the difficulty of tightening gun regulation at the federal level. Congress took swift bipartisan action in response to reported deaths from vaping, but has great difficulty acting on guns despite the much great toll of gun-related deaths.
Himes said he frequently sees a Newtow man at public forums, and it is always difficult.
“He lost his five-year-old son at Sandy Hook, and we’ve done so little,” Himes said.
Gun safety is making some progress at the state level. “Connecticut acted, other states have acted,” he said.
One hopeful step in Washington has been the lifting of the longstanding ban that prevented the Centers for Disease Control from doing research into gun-related deaths.
“That has been changed,” Himes said.
But overall, gun-safety legislation is still very tough to get through Congress.
“Keep up the pressure,” Himes told his audience. “Good things take longer than we wish they would.”
A questioner described an incident where “six police officers went an jumped a subway jumper” and asked about “criminal justice reform” issues and how police interact with “people of color.”
“You’re absolutely right, at every point in judicial experience — policing, courts, sentencing — “there is racial bias in our system.”
While there can be some improvement led by Congress, reforming the system’s shortcoming will take more than that, since most police are under state and locally control.
“It’s as much a state and and local issues as federal,” Himes said, “This is a project for all of us, at every level.”
Standing before the mostly white Ridgefield audience, Himes said it served as a call to action on the criminal justice issues “when we see how our African- American brothers and sisters and treated, or how they talk to their kids about how to act when they get pulled over.”