POULSBO — Issues close to home — health care, jobs, climate and the economy — were among the major interests of some 80 people who came to hear and question U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, at his town hall meeting Aug. 9 in the North Kitsap Auditorium.
Most of the crowd was polite, interested and enthusiastic — clapping frequently during Kilmer’s remarks. Only twice during the question and answer period did things threaten to get unruly when questioners wanted to turn their questions into debates about Trump and immigration.
Here are some of the issues and questions.
In his opening remarks, Kilmer focused on the need to get government and the economy back on track. In order to get government right-sided, “[we need] to restore faith in government,” he said. He talked of his efforts to assure higher ethical standards for the legislative and executive branches, including proposing mandatory ethics training for Congress and a Presidential Tax Transparency Act and Presidential Conflict of Interest Act. The last would hold the president and vice president to the same ethical standards as the rest of government.
Russian involvement in the 2016 Election
He supports the FBI’s investigation of Russian intervention in the 2016 Presidential Election and supports the Protection in Democracy Act.
“There’s no question Russia was engaged in trying to influence the last election,” he said. Kilmer said he has sponsored a bill to set up a bipartisan commission, similar to one established after 9/11, to investigate what actually happened “and to keep it from happening again.”
“This is an American issue about the integrity of our electoral system,” he said.
He has also sponsored a bill to close the loophole that allows foreign interests to contribute to nonprofit issue advocacy organizations.
Kilmer described the reasoning behind sponsoring or co-sponsoring bills to put the teeth back in the Voting Rights Act, to end partisan gerrymandering of voting districts and to establish national standards for voting registration.
“There’s too much money in politics,” he said. Kilmer said he has sponsored bills to repeal the Citizens United decision, to require the disclosure of donors, to move toward citizen-sponsored elections and strengthen the Federal Election Commission.
The fiscal year ends on the last day of September. That means Congress should pass 12 appropriation bills out of the House and Senate for the president’s signature by the end of September. “At this point, Congress has passed zero,” he said.
He received what may have been the loudest ovation of the evening for his proposed “No budget, no pay” bill that would tie Congress members’ salaries to passing the budgets.
Proposed cuts and solutions
Kilmer discussed his views on proposed cuts to public education, financial aid, after-school programs, economic development, and basic protections for clean air and water. He also discussed how those affected residents living in the 6th District “outside the shadow of the Space Needle and who could really use a little help from the federal government.”
Kilmer said he is working on bills to bring broadband to communities lagging in technology changes, support tech apprenticeship programs, boost the outdoor economy, reform the tax system, invest in infrastructure, enhance the use of research in emerging fields such as cyber-security, help small businesses, and protect senior citizens.
And then it was the audience’s turn to ask Kilmer questions about issues of specific concern to them.
Medicare for all
The first question was about the future of health care and the possibility of “Medicare for all,” a form of national health insurance.
Kilmer went into some level of detail — complete with slides — to answer the questions, starting with comparing what Candidate Trump said to what President Trump has proposed.
After the House approved the new health care bill, “I saw kegs of beer being wheeled into the Capitol to celebrate the passage of a bill that would absolutely hammer the people I represent,” he said. “And it makes me very mad. Health care should not simply be a privilege for wealthy people, it should be a right for everybody.”
He said Congress needs to make improvements to the Affordable Care Act. He offered specific steps that need to be taken in order to strengthen and improve it, including addressing the shortage of primary care physicians.
“I think we have a shot to not just get Democrats, but also some Republicans, to buy into these ideas,” he said.
But what about national health insurance, or “Medicare for all”?
“There’s been … antipathy [among Republicans] for a single-payer system,” he said. “My efforts have been on protecting the progress we’ve made under the Affordable Care Act.”
Protecting the environment
“The biggest issue affecting health care is the climate,” said the next questioner. “What can Congress do to protect the environment?”
“Climate change is real and we need to do something about it,” Kilmer replied. He pointed out there are 11 Tribes in his district and four of them are coastal and “are in the process of trying to move to higher ground because of more storms and persistent flooding, not to mention the threat of tsunamis.”
He said he looked at the challenges associated with reducing pollution as an economic opportunity, not a hardship, to develop new technologies and businesses. “This is where there is going to be economic opportunity and we should embrace that,” he said.
“Robots versus immigrants”
The next speaker pointed out studies that show millions of American workers being replaced in the decades to come by robots and, given that, how can we justify our immigration policies.
“That’s my question: How are we going to deal with this issue and why should we add one million immigrants a year?,” the audience member asked.
Kilmer broke the question down into two parts. As a member of the Future of Work Task Force in Congress, he takes the view that the second Industrial Revolution “needs to not be something we are victims of, but something we shape.” He pointed out significant changes already to book stores and film production that resulted in the loss of jobs, but also new opportunities. Because of technology, people have new ways to access books, and smart phones are essentially hand-held computers with a phone app — as well as advanced photography and filmmaking tools.
“There are technological changes that displace a lot of workers and I think government does and inadequate job of addressing that,” citing trade adjustment assistance ans an example of programs that do not go far enough.
With regard to immigration policies, he said there are jobs in the technology sector where there are not enough qualified workers. He recommended suitably increasing the fees associated with workers’ visas and dedicating that money to science, math and technology education.
“Where do you stand on creating injection facilities for opioid addicts?” one audience member asked.
“I feel very strongly we should do something about this,” Kilmer said. He said the “opioid epidemic” was one of the few issues that Congress had been able to come together on. Areas being addressed: stronger drug approval by the FDA, better education for providers about the addictive qualities of medications, and expanding access to treatment “where we are woefully under sourced,” he said.
Kilmer said he had proposed a bipartisan bill earlier this year to expand access to mental health and substance abuse treatment. “It’s a money loser for hospitals,” he said, so this bill would have the federal government help defray some of the expense.
“I’m hopeful that we can get that done.”
Economic sanctions against Russia
One questioner saw the sanctions against Russia “as a form of warfare” and asked why Kilmer had voted for it.
“I’m a big believer in ‘smart power,’ because not every problem can be solved with a bomb and a tank,” Kilmer said. “You have other tools in your policy tool box to try and address threats … Economic policies are part of that tool box. There’s bipartisan support for that.”
“What are you as a member of Congress doing to speak up against the escalating rhetoric [with North Korea] that the Trump administration is issuing,” asked the next questioner.
“When you’re dealing with an incredibly complex foreign policy problem, shooting from the hip, either in Twitter or a press conference, is not wise,” Kilmer said in reference to Trump.
“How are you going to get Trump under control, though?” another audience member asked.
Kilmer replied, “I wish I could take away his Twitter.”