Facing an audience with a liberal bent, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon County) spent two hours fielding questions as part of a town hall meeting Thursday evening in Westfield.
Economic and healthcare issues topped the question list from audience members, with the two-term congressman attempting to steer the conversation towards foreign policy towards the end of the town hall meeting. Attendees pressed Lance for answers on issues ranging from the future of Medicare to funding for Planned Parenthood and unemployment.
Taxes and Debt Reduction
Lance faced several questions regarding the possibility of raising the income tax rate for the rich and ending corporate tax loopholes during the town hall.
“I pay a lot of taxes this year and I don’t have a problem paying more taxes,” one resident said to Lance. “People who make a lot of money should make a contribution back to society.”
Several attendees proposed to Lance returning to an upper tax rate similar to rates used prior to the 1986 reforming of the federal tax code, or to repeal the recently extended Bush tax cuts.
Several residents voiced support for a proposal to change the tax code for hedge funds to allow for the federal government to collect more taxes from the funds. The residents objected to a current classification of the hedge fund income as a capital gain, which is taxed at a lower rate.
Lance indicated that he is in favor of lower taxes, saying that would be able to stimulate the economy. Lance has been advocating lower taxes during his time in Congress and the state legislature.
“If we go back to the pre-Bush levels, we would raise about $3.8 trillion over the next 10 years, $2.8 trillion of which would come from middle class people,” he said. “About a trillion would come from those with incomes over a quarter million dollars a year. I believe there is virtually no support in the Congress of the United States to raise taxes on middle class people.”
The audience aggressively questioned Lance over corporate tax rates and what they described as loopholes that allow large corporations to pay less taxes. The tax rate paid by GE took center stage in the discussion,.
“Those guys don’t pay a goddamn dime,” one attendee said to loud applause. “I apologize for swearing.”
Lance said the question would be better referred to President Obama, who has appointed GE Chairman Jeffrey Immelt as the chairman of an economic policy advisory board. He said he would like to see Obama question Immelt on why GE does not pay more taxes.
Audience members disagreed with Lance, saying that the loopholes are written in law and companies employ attorneys to pay less in taxes, items Obama cannot encourage GE to reverse. Lance, who stressed he does not serve on the tax writing Ways and Means Committee, said he believes Ways and Means Committee Chaiman Dave Camp (R-Mich.) plans to hold hearings on corporate tax issues in the near future.
With Lance pushing for increased debt reduction, including proposing a dollar for dollar swap between debt reduction and raising the nation’s debt ceiling, several members of the audience said that a tax hike is the most needed part of the debt reduction plan.
“Mr. Congressman, how can you have a serious discussion on spending when the Republicans refuse to have any discussion on tax increases whatsoever,” one attendee said.
Funding for Planned Parenthood
Lance was questioned over if he is in support for continuing federal funding for Planned Parenthood, noting that the funding for the women’s health organization cannot legally be used on abortions. Lance is co-sponsoring an amendment offered by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (D-Ind.) to block federal funds for Planned Parenthood. The audience members said the funding would allow women’s health care to continue.
Lance said that he has toured a Planned Parenthood facility in Somerset County that does not perform abortions and he believes the organization should split into two groups, one that handles non-abortion procedures and the other abortions.
Lance has indicated in the past that he is supportive of abortion in the first trimester, but is against partial birth abortion. In a 2003 interview with the New York Times, then state senator Lance indicated that he is pro-choice, noting that he has voted for parental notification before abortions are performed on those under 18 years of age.
The audience pressed Lance for details of the health care coverage he receives as a member of Congress, noting that they believe all Americans should receive the same benefits.
“From a time an American is born, why can’t that person get the exact same benefits as a member of Congress,” one attendee said. “If you tell us what you get, why can’t we get it.”
When Lance said he believes the attendee favors the single payer option, the audience responded with loud applause.
Lance said he receives health benefits as a federal employee and that he favors giving benefits through employers. He did not specify what health benefits he receives as a federal employee. Lance did say that Congress debated and rejected the single payer option.
Lance, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees prescription drug policy, was questioned about laws allowing advertisement of prescription drugs. The questioner said that she believes this has allowed prescription drug prices to go up and encourage people to seek out those drugs.
Lance, who regularly notes that he represents the largest concentration of pharmaceutical companies in the country, said that he works to protect the industry, given it’s economic benefit to the communities in his district.
“The challenge there is that we continue to have an American drug industry,” Lance said. “It is very important to my district. I am elected to represent the district I serve. I do represent a district which is the heart of the American drug industry.”
Lance said that he does not know if prescription drug ads could end due to First Amendment issues, but then noted that there are bans in place for alcohol and tobacco.
Lance said the proposed budget proposal from House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was only a starting off point in a debate over federal spending. He said he voted for the budget proposal in order to start off the discussion on debt reduction, and then called on the U.S. Senate to present a budget proposal after defeating the Ryan budget.
“We need a discussion in this country on how to reform Medicare,” Lance said. “The actuary for the Medicare program states that the Medicare program will begin to go bankrupt by 2024. That means those presently in the Medicare program will not receive their full benefits.”
The Ryan proposal includes switching future Medicare benefits to a voucher program. The issue has been a political hot potato for Republicans, following the May election of U.S. Rep. Kathy Hochul (D-NY) in a special election representing a Republican leaning district outside of Buffalo, in what some have called a referendum on the Ryan proposal. Following Hochul’s election, the Democratic controlled Senate defeated the Ryan proposal.
Lance echoed Republican talking points, saying the Ryan proposal does not end Medicare and that changes are needed to the system to continue the senior citizen health care program. He noted that his father, a former state Senate president, and mother-in-law, who lived just outside Hochul’s rural Western New York district, were both part of the Medicare program.
During an interview following the town hall, Lance said he does not believe the Medicare issue contributed to Hochul’s win, saying he believes the presence of Tea Party candidate Jack Davis on the ballot elected the Democrat. Election results show that if all of Davis’ voters had voted for Republican nominee Jane Corwin in the race, the Republican would have won. Hochul has attributed to her win to the Medicare issue, with political observers in the Buffalo area citing Medicare, along with Davis and Hochul and Corwin's campaign styles as reasons behind the Democratic upset.
Lance said he wants to see the Senate put forward a proposal on the Medicare issue, using the Ryan proposal as a base for discussion.
Lance touched briefly on foreign policy during prepared remarks and received one question on military use. He said he would like to see more people focused on international issues and he decried the cable news focus on the sex scandal embroiling U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY).
Lance reiterated earlier remarks that he believes in a need for bipartisan support on international affairs, but noted he would like to see more information from the Obama Administration on the Libya issue.
Anthony Weiner Sex Scandal
Lance was questioned on whether he would call on his Energy and Commerce Committee colleague Weiner to resign in the wake of admitting to sex conversations on Facebook and Twitter. Lance did not respond directly the question on whether Weiner should resign.
“I believe I will always conduct myself as a member of Congress, regardless of whether you agree with me or disagree with me, in a manner that I hope to recognize public life as a public trust,” he said to applause.