ESCANABA - Area residents took advantage of a chance to express their opinions about the U.S. debt and budget during a public listening session with Congressman Dan Benishek in Escanaba Monday. The question and answer session centered on budget problems, possible solutions and what constituents want Benishek to do to help.
The freshman legislator announced the constituent listening forums in early August, and has three more planned this week throughout the western section of the Upper Peninsula.
"I'm here, really, to get your input -about what I'm doing and what you think about various issues," Benishek said during Monday's forum.
According to Benishek, the recently-passed Budget Control Act inspired the forums, and, though he voted in favor of it, he recognized the need to explain and hear from constituents on the Act, as well as other budgetary legislation.
"It has been rather frustrating for me to be in Congress - I truly make a decision as to how to vote for something based on what I hear from people in the district," he said. "I really do take that all into account."
Audience members present during the forum posed numerous questions to the congressman.
One of the first questions asked of Benishek was in regard to House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's budget - which he supports. According to the audience member, the Ryan budget makes cuts without trying to raise revenue by increasing taxes.
"The taxes could be overhauled - there's no doubt about it," Benishek said. "It's a very complicated tax code. Nobody likes it; everybody thinks that there's somebody else that's getting more of a break than them."
Another audience member asked why legislators don't attempt something other than a "slash and burn" approach to the budget - in particular, creating tax and revenue increases in addition to tax cuts.
"With a situation with unemployment like we have, you're talking about raising taxes on small business, and that's what we don't want to do," Benishek said. "We want to make conditions good for people in business, so they'll hire people."
In an answer as to why government officials refuse to stop pointing fingers at each other and, instead, focus on what can be successfully trimmed from the budget without crippling the economy, Benishek explained he believes everything should be cut across the board.
In fact, Benishek noted he supports the budget plan of Congressman Connie Mack, R-Florida, which calls for a 1 percent cut, across the board, every year for six years.
"There's a lot of waste and abuse," Benishek said. "Streamlining the government seems to be very difficult - as I'm learning."
One member of the audience targeted the Affordable Care Act, and asked Benishek why the government insisted on intruding in the personal lives of citizens.
"The marketplace in health care is all messed up," Benishek said. "I am in favor of a system that has, like, a health savings account."
With a health savings account, there would be more patient and doctor control, and less government intrusion, he explained.
Benishek defended the lack of a House bill that could be used to replace the act, and also addressed the rumors the Ryan budget makes devastating changes to Social Security and Medicare.
"Medicare has really been changed already by Obamacare," he said. "The Ryan plan doesn't change Medicare or Social Security for anybody 55 years of age or older."
The future of the American financial system was asked of another audience member, who pointed out legislators are only writing a "blank check of spending" by passing bills like the Budget Control Act. He also noted this, and other proposed budget bills, can't guarantee what future Congress members do - negating any effort made by current legislators.
"You can cut this year's spending, you can put a cap going forward, but the cap going forward can be changed by any Congress... but that's the way it functions," Benishek answered.
When asked about his seemingly contradictory vote in favor of the Budget Control Act, which raises the debt ceiling something he had been against, Benishek explained he was trying to avoid government shutdown.
"The uncertainty involved with not paying the debt was too great for me," he said. "A lot of people didn't like this vote - I didn't like this vote, but I didn't want to vote to go to the crisis."
At the close of the forum, Benishek addressed the benefits of the forum, which, not only allowed him to hear from constituents, but allowed constituents to hear from him.
"Everything we talked about here today, people have passionate opinions about," he said. "You have to temper your thought - you may think that I have folded or caved or whatever, but honestly, it's about the jobs for me. It's about reforming our government in a responsible fashion.
I'll stand here, and if I don't get elected, fine," Benishek added. "I'm here; I'm doing the best I can to try to bring some logic to the government."