ABERDEEN — U.S. Representative Derek Kilmer resurrected the congressional town hall meeting Friday, allowing anyone with a few spare minutes this past Friday afternoon to voice their concerns and talk to their congressman.
It may sound like common sense for a congressman to meet his constituency, but Grays Harbor College history instructor Gary Murrell pointed out to Kilmer and the crowd that in his 20 years of living on the Harbor, a congressional town hall meeting has simply not happened.
“This is the first time a congressman has deemed us worthy of a town hall meeting and I give you great credit for that,” Murrell said.
Murrell’s comment drew loud applause from about 110 people who packed the Rotary Log Pavilion in Aberdeen Friday afternoon.
Kilmer’s predecessor, Norm Dicks, just never made himself available for any town hall meetings. Kilmer says he’s done plenty of fairs, chamber events and company visits, but he heard loud and clear that residents wanted to do town hall meetings.
“I committed I would do this,” Kilmer said after the town hall. “I take seriously the notion that I work for the people I represent and, from that standpoint, I take value to hear what’s on their mind because I think that makes me a better representative of their interests and I am being accountable to them and let them know the good, the bad and the ugly in our nation’s capital.”
Congressman Kilmer says he joins the rest of the country in the frustrations over Congress and in his five months in office, he’s quickly learned how the inaction in passing budgets and finding common ground on the other side of the aisle has given Congress a worse reputation than a cockroach or a colonoscopy. He’s serious, too, with the survey from Public Policy Polling in January backing up his statements.
Kilmer said he adamantly opposed across-the-board spending cuts and “Congress needs to do its job” by actually passing a budget.
Jim Eddy, a former PUD commissioner, agreed with Kilmer that equal cuts across the board don’t make any sense.
“But, worse are selective repeals from those cuts,” Eddy said, referring to the restoration of funds for Air Traffic Control to reduce waiting time at airports.
“All of a sudden when senators and congressmen have longer lines to sit through or fewer flights all of a sudden they’re repealed and yet Head Start still has an equal cut,” Eddy said. “It doesn’t make a hill of a beans sense and I am ashamed there was equal participation on both sides of the political spectrum that voted for it.”
Kilmer, who voted for the restoration, said that is fair criticism.
“I have said from day one that Congress should replace sequestration with a big, bold and hopefully bipartisan budget,” Kilmer said. “… I believe Congress needs to deal with this in a systematic way. At the same time, put yourself in my shoes and if you were presented with a bill that says let’s not furlough 5,000 Naval employees in Kitsap County, would you vote for it or against it? Well, it’s a piece-meal solution. It’s not a comprehensive solution like you and I think make the most sense. But if you’re able to solve a problem and you know that bill would solve it, wouldn’t you support it? I did. I don’t get to vote ‘Yes, but with concerns.’”
Kilmer says the way out of the economic slump is to cut spending, reform the tax system and grow the economy through small businesses.
“The best point of economic development is to keep the industries we have,” Kilmer said.
“So what is Congress doing about it?” Kilmer mused to the audience. “The short answer is not enough.”
Ashley West of Aberdeen told Kilmer she wants to start a small business locally, but she’s become frustrated with local banks and credit unions because she can’t get a loan or a line of credit for a new herb and tea store.
“I have to have some sort of line of credit first and you can’t get approved for a credit card and yet if you file for bankruptcy you can get approved for a credit card in three months,” West said. “I think that’s a little ridiculous.”
Kilmer said that from a systematic standpoint, West had raised a good point and he says that his office is open to being a resource for West to connect her with the Small Business Administration to see if they can help.
Kilmer notes that since he came to Congress, his office has opened 232 total cases working with Veterans Affairs, the Internal Revenue Service and others when they face roadblocks with federal bureaucracies.
“We have helped constituents receive the benefits they’ve earned from agencies like Medicare and the Social Security Administration, amounting to over $55,500 in benefits,” he said.
Kilmer also fielded questions on genetically modified foods — something he says he needs to get more information on — as well as tax code reform and other issues. One man asked Kilmer if he supported a proposed 28th Amendment, where laws Congress passes should also apply to themselves.
“I support Congress living by the laws that they make,” Kilmer said to applause and laughter. “Should I have talked longer on that one?”
Another man told Kilmer he should get rid of the healthcare reforms enacted by President Obama.
Kilmer said that there are things he likes about health reform and things he doesn’t. But, what he particularly doesn’t like is that the Republicans in Congress continue to vote to repeal the act, which everyone knows under current political conditions is staying put.
“Two weeks ago, when Congress voted for the 37th time on the repeal of it, I don’t think that’s a productive use of time,” Kilmer said. “And, frankly, I think that’s part of the reason the public is frustrated because too much time is spent making partisan statements rather than actually getting stuff done.”
That comment drew applause from the audience.
Donna Albert, a self-described civil engineer, says that she’s worried about the potential crude oil by rail projects proposed for the Port of Grays Harbor.
“There are some great alternatives to fossil fuels and I think we ought to be a part of that,” Albert said, adding that one of the potential sites is by a wildlife refuge in Hoquiam.
Arnie Martin, of the Grays Harbor Audubon Society, echoed those concerns, saying he was worried that not enough attention was being paid to the potential ramification of an oil spill on the Harbor.
“You should have an appropriate permitting process that looks at it both from an environmental standpoint and an economic impact,” Kilmer said. “It should go through that process. I’m certainly sensitive on the environmental concerns. As a dad of two little girls, I want to make sure that the air they breathe and the water they drink is clean. At the same time, I’m also sensitive to the fact that Grays Harbor County has an unemployment rate of 12.1 percent and it’s the highest in the state right now. As a consequence, I think we need to be open minded to economic development activities, and if it jumps through those hurdles it should move forward.”
Randy Dutton of Montesano dared Kilmer to take a stand on the recent string of controversies coming out of the Obama Administration. Dutton said that as a congressman, Kilmer’s duties include holding the White House accountable.
“There is practically a scandal in every department of the executive branch, including several the press hasn’t even picked up with,” Dutton said. “I want to know what you’re going to do to reign in the executive branch, which admittedly has decided to go around Congress on spending and regulations. This county suffers from regulations from FEMA and the EPA on what we can do with our property and what we can’t do with our property and they’ve done it around Congress. Does it bother you that the executive branch is taking power that rightfully belongs to Congress?”
“I think you very rightfully point out that one of the fundamental roles of Congress is oversight and accountability,” Kilmer said. “And you’ve all probably seen this in recent weeks from varoous scandals. Let’s use one example — the IRS scandal.
“I was personally outraged by that. I think federal agencies have a job to do in terms of enforcement, but anytime you do enforcement selectively, particularly when it’s politically motivated, I think that is wrong and I think heads should roll. … You need to figure out what went wrong and you need to make sure it doesn’t happen anymore and that is also a role for Congress to play.”
Kilmer pointed out that the White House recently tried to take back funding that Congress had already allocated for rural schools. The “Secured Rural Schools Funding” comes to rural counties, including Grays Harbor.
“The administration sent out letters to local governments, including the one here, saying you need to pay back the funding you received,” Kilmer said. “And I actually on behalf of not just our district, but I put together a letter that was signed by members of Congress throughout the country that under what authority are you asking local governments to pay back money they’ve received over the last year to try to help rural schools?”
Kilmer said that the administration eventually stepped away from its proposal.
Grays Harbor County Commissioner Frank Gordon urged Congressman Kilmer to use his influence to ensure that Grays Harbor College’s new building isn’t cut from the state’s capital budget.
“We also need your support on Wild Olympics,” Gordon said, proudly wearing a sticker supporting the proposal that would add more wilderness designations around Olympic National Park. “Wild Olympics is going to save our water quality because one of our biggest industries down here is fishing.”
“I am in an unusual situation having stepped into a seat where this was put forward by my predecessor and Sen. Patty Murray, ” Kilmer said, adding he has spent the past five months reaching out to all sides on the issue.
“I’m still having those conversations,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer says he sees the positives behind the plan and believes that by protecting upstream areas it will protect shellfish beds downstream and help with salmon recovery.
“At the same time, I believe this is an opportunity to have a more comprehensive look at land-use issues on the Peninsula,” Kilmer said. “I think we should be doing a better job of optimizing our economic opportunities, as well, within the existing Northwest Forest Plan. I believe we can increase harvest levels, as well. And so a lot of my effort has been talking to Forest Service and others on, ‘How do you do that?’ There’s general agreement you can do more about thinning and habitat restoration that not only serves our economic reasons but also serves to help forest health. The challenge for me to figure out is where is that sweet spot? And I am working on it.”