Report on Adam Smith's Town Hall at Mercer Island

A mere twenty people or so showed up at Congressman Adam Smith’s Town Hall meeting on Mercer Island on April 23, 2014.

I arrived five minutes beforehand and found myself standing alone with Rep. Smith. I asked him why he didn’t support the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ Better Off Budget. He said he voted against the Ryan budget, for the Black Caucus budget, for the Democrat’s Alternative Budget and against one other budget, which he wasn’t sure about, but which he and I surmised must have been the Progressive Caucus Budget. In other words, I don’t think he had the chance to investigate the CPC budget closely. In his defense, I point out that House and Senate members have to deal with hundreds of bills a year and, for many bills, must depend on their aides, leaders, and colleagues to decide what to support.

Smith is a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, along with Denny Heck, Derek Kilmer, and Suzan DelBene, not the Progressive Caucus.

Next I asked him about the F-35 fighter jet, which I said was ridiculously expensive and which, I heard, didn’t work so well. He said, “Oh, it works” but he agreed it was far too expensive. I mentioned how the supporters made sure to place contracts related to the jet in numerous House districts (pork). He said that there’s no way to cancel the program because it’s the only jet we have for the future. Donald Rumsfeld set things up so that we put all our eggs in one basket: the F-35. I said that I heard that they built jets prematurely, before they were ready to fly. He agreed with that. Smith is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Service Committee, so he has significant power in these matters.

At this point it was time to enter the Town Hall meeting hall. Someone asked about the possibility of conflict with Russia over Ukraine. I mentioned what I had read in an article by Stephen F. Cohen, an emeritus professor of politics from Princeton University, in the Nation: the U.S. and NATO were putting unreasonable pressure on Russia, by expanding to former Eastern block nations and instigating rebellion in various surrounding nations. Would the U.S. like it if Russian-friendly troops were in Canada and Mexico?

Adam Smith agreed that to some extent that analysis is true — NATO is boxing Russia in — but Putin runs a kleptocrcacy and is using the threat of war to distract his people from a bad economy. In other words, in the end he seemed to blame mostly Putin.

Smith agreed the US can’t afford to be the policeman of the world. He said he spoke with refugees in Jordan who asked why the U.S. allowed Assad to do bad things in Syria. Smith explained to the refugees that it’s a misconception to think the US has that much power to stop Assad.

Questions shifted to the budget. Smith said there’s $1 trillion in discretionary spending (infrastructure, R&D, defense), plus $2.9 trillion in mandatory spending (Social Security, Medicare, Veterans, interest).

Smith spoke a lot about concentration of wealth and the shrinking middle class.  95% of the Bush tax cuts were made permanent.  Boeing and Apple and other companies pay little or no taxes.  Soon after WWII, in contrast, capital had nowhere to flee, because other countries were largely destitute. But now the companies send money to places like Ireland. (Smith could have mentioned the Cayman Islands as well.)

He mentioned two things out of many things he could mention to help fix the shrinking middle class:

  1. Education & jobs training; and
  2. Investment in infrastructure.

A lot of our infrastructure was built soon after WWII and is in bad shape. Compared to China’s trains and Hong Kong’s modern airport, JFK Airport in NYC looks like something from a third world country, he said.

One should be wary when politicians blame our economic troubles on uneducated workers. Yes, we are investing too little in education, but lots of problems are due to policies that weaken unions, open tax loopholes and benefits for rich people, and burden the middle class with medical and education debt. Besides, conservatives seem eager to destroy public education, though our competitors almost universally have public education systems. See Public Schools Win Internationally.

Smith mentioned that he sent his kids (10 and 12) to Tacoma public schools and now to the excellent Issaquah public schools.

A conservative guy complained about  how high tax rates discourage work and innovation.  Rep. Smith said that, yes, if tax rates are too high it’s no good, and if they’re too low it’s no good either.  Some people say that if we lower tax rates, we’ll bring in more revenue. That’s just not true.  Smith tried to get the conservative guy to agree with that and he discussed the changing tax rates over the years. Now taxes are probably too low.

Here Rep. Smith discusses our unfair tax system and how to fix it by eliminating loopholes:

A conservative lady in the audience complained about how her health care premiums almost doubling under ACA/Obamacare.   She thought that government wastes money on things like the Department of Education and the Department of Justice (!).  She said the government spends too much on things not mentioned in the Constitution. Adam Smith mentioned “The General Welfare” phrase. She said that was in the Preamble and so didn’t count.  Smith mentioned that the Supreme Court ruled that the ACA was constitutional. She said, it’s still wrong.

Someone (the same woman?) asked Smith about his government health care plan.  Was he exempted from the ACA requirements. He said, no, it’s a myth. He in fact was forced to switch to a plan that is worse than what he had had. He pays more, but he’s OK with that; he’s fine with contributing to a pool to help poorer people get insurance.  Yes, he was lied to about the ACA — and he said he once warned Pres. Obama to  be careful how he markets the program. In any major policy initiative, there will be winners and losers.

Smith said that in countries in Europe, people have more a sense of community and don’t mind helping others. Americans are more individualistic [I say that’s a euphemism for “selfish”].  Also, other countries aggressively regulate health care costs, especially end-of-life care [which eats  up a huge proportion of costs, and which ACA tried to control with a mechanism that conservatives called “death panels”].  In the US, health care providers are paid “WAY more” than providers are paid overseas. In Europe fees are regulated, and medical students can go to medical school for free. In the US, patients have too many medical tests.

He said we pay 17% of our GDP on health care; the average for the rest of the world is 8%.  And we consistently rank somewhere between 30th and 40th in the quality.  He said these facts will make conservatives angry.  Yes, we have very advanced health care, available for people with good insurance or for people who can afford it. But we leave a lot of people without health care.

Smith told the true story of a woman who died several because she couldn’t afford treatment for Lupus.  With ACA, she could have lived.

(I have a video of Smith’s comments about health care, if you want to see and hear him.) He said:  “I submit that the system we had before the ACA was really, really bad.”

I got a chance to speak again. I said, “It seems that conservatives and liberals often live in entirely different worlds, with different facts. Often they hate each other.   Government-run health care in Europe and Canada are far cheaper than the US’s market-based system and they have better outcomes (better health care). “  Several people tried to shout out comments but it was my turn so they shut up.

I continued:

Furthermore, Republicans complain about government waste, but when they ran the government, they wasted trillions of dollars — trillions, not billions — on disastrous, corrupt wars.  The war in Iraq was a complete disaster.

Furthermore, the Affordable Care Act was designed by the Heritage Institute and tested by Mitt Romney. It’s a very conservative plan that helps the insurance companies. I and many Democrats preferred single-payer or at last a plan with a bigger public option.

Finally I mentioned that in the 1950s and 1960s, when tax rates were high, the economy boomed and the middle class thrived.   Adam Smith had said similar things earlier, but not this precise point.

After I spoke, the conservative woman said she agreed with me on Iraq.  The conservative guy in the back who complained about high taxes was dumb.

I was glad that nobody complained about immigrants. At the last Adam Smith Town Hall I attended, several conservatives spoke vehemently against immigration reform (granting a path to citizen to “illegal aliens”). There was no shouting and acrimony at this Town Hall meeting.  People were polite.

Adam Smith speaks well and eloquently. He’s a likable guy, even though I think he’s too centrist on military issues and not aggressive enough on economic justice and taxation. He said clearly that he welcomes people to contact him and visit his office to discuss issues. He’s very approachable but was firm about not letting interruptions during questioning.

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