Congressman Jared Huffman’s first telephone “town hall” forum gave North Coast residents a chance to learn of his stances on high profile issues and the intensity of political division over them.
Huffman began the May 22 telephone-based event by saying that in his five-and-a-half months in Congress, he’s seen legislators “spending too much time on political theater and not enough time on problem-solving.”
The house and senate have proposed different budget resolutions and President Barack Obama is advancing his own budget option. When a caller from Ukiah asked about preservation of Social Security and Medicare benefits, Huffman said he “strongly disagrees” with the president’s proposal to reduce annual inflation adjustments on Social Security benefits.
Huffman also opposes Medicare reductions and he acknowledged that there’s a high level of concern among seniors on the status of their benefits. “This is the worst possible time to start moving the goal posts and taking away benefits that they planned for all their lives,” he said.
Asked about climate change, Huffman said it’s a “huge priority” for him and he’s part of the Clean Climate Caucus group of lawmakers that’s pushing for addressing it. He said “clean energy innovation,” improved forestland management and increased support for mass transit are some of the things that can done to offset greenhouse gas impacts.
But the “GOP leadership isn’t buying into the issue,” Huffman continued, highlighting Republican support for the Keystone XL pipeline proposal that would “unlock delivery of very dirty tar sands oil in Canada” and move it through the U.S. to refineries.
Huffman called tar sands oil “some of the dirtiest, most climate-damaging fuel” there is. “That’s the fight we’re having here, unfortunately, over the direction of energy policy in the United States,” he said.
A caller from Humboldt asked about removal of Klamath River dams, which needs congressional authorization. Huffman said that “congressional politics are not so great now on fisheries issues” but he added, “I want to do whatever it takes to get those dams out.”
Since division is an influential political condition, a caller who had worked with Huffman at the Marin Municipal Water District asked him what he thinks drives it. Huffman said the most divisive rhetoric emerges “when cameras turn on” and media coverage is used as a platform for campaigning.
Competition is getting fiercer, Huffman added, as Democrats are 17 seats away from gaining a majority presence in Congress. He said he tries to work with a variety of his colleagues “on an issue to issue basis” and has found that there’s unexpected consensus on one locally-relevant issue.
“I’ve been surprised at the depth of bi-partisan support for moving toward a more sensible policy on marijuana regulation,” said Huffman.
Answering other questions, Huffman said he opposes fracking, will fight against cuts to food stamp benefits and supports gun control measures.
Huffman pointed out that members of congress that support gun control aren’t proposing anything that would change conditions in California, which has some of the “most rigorous” gun ownership regulations in the country. He said he wants to enact mandatory background checks on those who seek to buy guns online and at gun shows.
In response to a caller who described GMO foods as “Garbage Made to Order,” Huffman said he supports food product labeling and a ban on GMO salmon and other fish. “It will be very hard to keep these fish from getting out into the environment and breeding and spreading disease and doing some real damage to our wild salmon stocks,” he continued.
Arcata Councilmember Michael Winkler asked Huffman about his views on how the U.S. should handle the Syrian civil war. Huffman doesn’t support the country taking a military role. Russia may be able to broker negotiations but the U.S. can’t, he said.
None of the warring factions are “a real great match” for U.S. interests, Huffman continued, and the situation is in a negative trend. “Frankly, the leading emerging group in this sectarian conflict in Syria right now just swore its allegiance to Al-Qaeda,” he said.
The federal Affordable Care Act will be implemented in 2014 and Huffman believes it will succeed despite ongoing opposition to it. He said that some of its provisions are actually in place now and health care costs are rising more slowly than they have over the last decade.
Another caller remarked about partisanship and asked what people who aren’t in leadership roles can do to improve things. Huffman said the division in Congress reflects the division between different parts of the country.
“The country’s divided and the best we can do is to try to focus on solutions and respect each other,” he continued.