Constituents Vocal about their Concerns
A congressional representative’s “town hall” meeting can be disorienting, with issues ricocheting from the global to the local, and from action needed now to resignation over seemingly intractable partisan gridlock. Such was the case at Rep. Diana DeGette’s town hall held Saturday, Feb. 13 at McAuliffe International School. About 100 people peppered the 10-term congresswoman with issues as diverse as global security, the use of eminent domain for highway projects, the pros and cons of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and whether energy companies should reveal the chemical composition of fracking fluids.
DeGette attempted to create some structure to the town hall by outlining her immediate priorities in introductory remarks. They include: continued promotion of 21st Century Cures legislation to accelerate progress toward “precision medicine”; addressing what she called the millennials’ “number one problem—college availability and ability to pay back loans”; and, continued hope for campaign finance reform legislation.
The universe of issues expanded quickly as DeGette organized note cards from the audience, grouped them by topic, and commented briefly on each:
- Diabetes: DeGette says the Diabetes Caucus is the largest in Congress. As caucus co-chair, she is pushing legislation to target the “minority disparities,” i.e., the concentration of the disease among minorities such as American Indians.
- Energy: DeGette said the country “just bumps along” without a coherent energy and renewables policy. She wants creation of a bipartisan commission to develop an energy blueprint for the U.S.
- Prison Reform: the congresswoman lamented the U.S. ranking as “number one or two among developed countries in terms of prison population.” She wants expanded programs for rehabilitating and educating prisoners, especially nonviolent drug offenders.
- Sports-related Concussions: she hopes that forthcoming hearings with major sports league owners and officials will bring the issue to the forefront although she doesn’t anticipate new legislation in this area.
- Other topics included homelessness, the I-70 East highway expansion project, ISIS and immigration reform.
A theme running throughout her comments was the need to establish proven and funded programs to address a range of social ills.
This prompted several attendees to demand the opportunity to address her directly with questions rather than indirectly through the note cards. DeGette agreed to this change in format. Speakers then took her to task for promoting new programs at a time when the budget deficit and national debt are increasing. More than once, DeGette asserted that the federal financial problems do not lie with discretionary domestic spending. “They barely put a dent in the national debt,” she said. Rather she urged a comprehensive review of tax policy, revenue sources and mandatory spending, presumably for a variety of entitlement spending categories.
With that, questions—and mini-speeches—from the audience covered an even wider range of topics: removing trade barriers with Cuba, creating a separate consumer price index for seniors to realistically assess cost-of-living increases, prosecuting officials involved in the 2008 banking scandal, and assessing the fairness of requiring sexual offenders to make note of such on their passports (a modern-day “Scarlet Letter” in the words of one speaker).
The whirlwind tour of issues large and small ended after 90 minutes with a promise that there will be additional such town halls in the district throughout the year. She also urged people to attend an upcoming workshop on the federal budget being organized by the Concord Coalition.
DeGette cautioned attendees not to expect much in the way of new legislation this year due to two factors: 2016 being an election year, and the block of 60–70 Tea Party members stymieing Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s even limited efforts at bipartisanship. For her part, each time DeGette mentioned a bill she is sponsoring, she made note of her Republican co-sponsor.