U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-District 4, fielded questions on everything from health care and coal mining to Russian election meddling and ATVs in the woods during his first live Facebook town hall Tuesday night, talking to live callers and Facebook viewers from his Washington office.
The resulting hourlong video of the session had garnered more than 9,600 views on Facebook by Wednesday afternoon and reportedly reached more than 31,000 people, according to Ryan Saylor, Westerman's communications director and legislative assistant.
Westerman began the broadcast by noting "the issue on everybody's mind" is legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. "When the bill was first introduced, I didn't support the legislation, but I worked constructively with the leadership and the White House to introduce conservative amendments to the bill, including block grants and work requirements for able-bodied working age adults."
Westerman said with the current leadership "showing a willingness to work and make the bill better" he supported the legislation, but "unfortunately not all the members felt the same way" and House Speaker Paul Ryan pulled the bill.
He said passage of one comprehensive bill would require 60 votes in the Senate. With 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats or Independents in the Senate, he said that would mean getting "eight Democrats on board" to support the bill, noting, "I don't think that's going to happen."
Westerman said by using the budget reconciliation process, made possible by the Budget Control Act of 1974, they could get certain items passed through the House and Senate with a simple majority vote, including taking away pieces of the ACA such as taxes and mandates, and addressing Medicaid's entitlement program "which hasn't been changed basically since it was put into place."
He said it was "a balancing act" to get a bill through the House without it being thrown out for not meeting the budget reconciliation standards, but once the bill gets to the Senate "they have more flexibility" and can pass or discard amendments individually "without destroying the underlying bill."
"I was disappointed with where we got to last week," he said, but stressed that his work on the health care bill would not stop. He said he had been working on it Monday and Tuesday and was still committed to the repeal of the ACA and "I will do everything in my power to get the vote to the floor."
He noted President Donald Trump was "100 percent behind" their plan and "understands the process and the problems with Obamacare right now and how it's hurting Americans." He said while it's true some have benefited from the ACA, estimated as high as 24 million people, that only represents about 7 percent of the population.
"A lot of people have seen their insurance premiums go up and a lot of people have been hurt by (the ACA). And insurance premiums will continue to go up unless something is done about it."
Westerman said Trump signed executive orders Tuesday to rescind rules imposed by the Obama administration that "killed American energy production and stifled job growth," noting former President Obama's coal lease moratorium "put thousands of men and women across coal country out of work and often onto public assistance."
"These jobs provide steady wages for families while providing Americans with homegrown energy. It's time to put these Americans back to work," he said, noting he applauded Trump's efforts to "put common sense back in the process."
He also praised Trump for authorizing the construction of the Keystone pipeline last week, noting, "The pipe for the project is built in Arkansas" so "you're supplying hundreds of jobs at home while supplying much-needed energy for the country."
Westerman said once they have dealt with health care, the next big issue will be tax reform, because people "want to be able to keep more money to invest in businesses, to invest in education and their children's education, pay off debts or to build savings. For too long, America has taxed its people" causing an exodus of jobs and resources out of the country.
He said he believed that would stop with the reform of the tax code that would take the seven current individual tax brackets and reduce them to three. "We will make taxes so simple you could complete your annual return on a postcard" and will reduce the corporate tax rate so "it's competitive with the rest of the world."
He said the plan is "to keep companies at home and encourage others to come back home and to invest money and create jobs in the U.S."
Asked what it would take for Democrats and Republicans to work together, Westerman said they already were, and that there were some things in the ACA many Democrats "would like to see go away," including allowing insurance companies to establish monopolies. He noted a bill addressing that issue last week passed the House by a vote of 416 to 7, which shows "individual policy issues can get bipartisan support."
Asked about welfare abuse, Westerman said it was an issue that needed to be addressed, but the states would have to get involved. "These programs were put in place for the right reasons, to help people truly in need who need a hand up to get back on their feet," but there was "tremendous" waste and fraud and abuse and billions of dollars being lost.
He said he was working with the government accountability office, which is nonpartisan, to get rid of the waste and fraud, but stressed they also need to target people who owe taxes who don't pay. "We've got something like 400 to 500 billion (dollars) a year in uncollected taxes. To make the budget solvent, we've got to start collecting taxes that are owed."
Asked about alleged Russian involvement in the election process, Westerman said he was not on the intelligence committee, so he has followed the issue "from a distance," but "I've got full confidence in the members of the committee to investigate and if there's a problem to bring it to light. There is a lot of chatter in the news but I want to see what they come back with. You have got to let the process work through on that."
A Jessieville caller asked Westerman about restrictions by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies on riding ATVs in the woods, noting he was 80 and disabled but still liked to hunt. Westerman said it didn't make sense that "they are trying to get more people to use the lands but at the same time blocking access."
He said the issue "is a fight I want to be involved in. You want to be able to enjoy public land and use existing roads and there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to do that." Westerman noted he serves on the Natural Resources Committee and "that's an issue I'm aware of and will be working on."
Asked about illegal immigration, he said the numbers of people illegally crossing the border "are going way down" due to increased enforcement. "We have laws in place that need to be enforced. The last administration was not keen on enforcing them," he said, but Trump was working to keep the borders secure.
"It's not just illegal aliens coming in, but drugs. We encourage legal immigration, but we have to make sure people are playing by the rules," he said, noting the health care bill has specific provisions to not provide services to illegals and they are doing the same with social welfare programs "to make sure only American citizens get the benefits which are funded by American tax dollars."
Asked about Social Security, Westerman said it was "a huge issue we're facing," because "on the path we're on" its predicted Social Security will be insolvent by 2034. He said Social Security has two funding sources: Money paid in from people's paychecks and the trust fund which earns interest.
He said last year they reached a point where "it was almost an equilibrium" with the funds coming in "only slightly more than the funds going out." He said soon the money being paid out will be more and then Social Security will have to go into the trust fund which will decrease the fund and the interest gained.
"We have to do something to fix this," he said, or there will be "huge cuts" in the amounts being paid out. He said there is "still a window to fix it," but "it may be a solution some people won't like."Local on 04/02/2017
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