Domestic policies on minds of most at Murphy forum

GHENT–Congressman Scott Murphy (D-20th) drew a standing-room-only crowd of over 60 people Monday at Town Hall, where he responded in short order to questions from constituents, most of them focused on domestic issues like health care, jobs and the deficit.

It was only last month that the congressman fulfilled a pledge to visit every municipality in his 10-county district with numerous stops in and around Columbia County, but he was back in the county this week to address cell phone service improvements in Ancram and tour the JEM Woodworking site, which received assistance from his office in obtaining a Small Business Administration loan.  And finally the Congress on Your Corner meeting–the concept was introduced locally by his predecessor, Kirsten Gillibrand–where he spoke briefly about what he has been doing in Washington and then opened up the floor to questions.

The congressman from Glens Falls said that as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, he has spent time reviewing preparations for the drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq. “We’re leaving behind a fairly stable government” there, he said of the situation in that country.

He also said that through the committee he spends time working on services for veterans, in part because the Veterans Administration “has a lot of problems getting things done quickly.”

Later in the session, Gary Flaherty, a veteran and director of the county Veterans Services Department, thanked Mr. Murphy for his work on behalf of those who have served in the military.

One man in the audience framed his question about federal deficits by asking whether Congress saw the election of a Republican U.S. senator in heavily Democratic Massachusetts as a wake-up call to restrain government spending.

Not taking the bait on the politics of the Massachusetts election and what it might mean for his own expected bid for re-election later this year, Mr. Murphy segued into an explanation of how the House has reinstituted the so-called pay-as-you-go policy, which requires lawmakers to find cuts or tax revenue to pay for new programs. He said the expiration of that rule in 2002 had freed Congress to spend in ways that led to the current record deficits. But as he did throughout the meeting, he emphasized that the cumulative deficits built up during the term of President George W. Bush cannot be eliminated quickly.

He said the House has adopted regulatory reforms aimed at preventing financial institutions from causing the type of economic losses seen over the last year but that the Senate is “just sitting on it.”

Picking up on his support for small business, he emphasized his belief that small companies would revive the jobs market, which has languished despite technical signs that the economy is recovering. “It’s not going to be the federal government that creates those jobs,” he said. The congressman said government’s role is to assist small businesses with credit and provide infrastructure to help those businesses grow.

He pointed to the lack of broadband Internet access in rural areas and cited a $50-million project for Upstate New York to run fiber-optic cable to rural communities. Under the plan, local private companies will manage the network once the government pays to install the cables. He likened this effort to the federal government’s support for electrical lines to rural communities in the 1930s and ’40s. He said the money for the broadband project comes from federal economic stimulus funds.

Asked whether he supports the inheritance tax, Rep. Murphy said that he does with an exemption for the first $3.5 million. Elaborating on the point, he said he believed that farmers and small business people should be able to pass on that much wealth without having it taxed, but that for people like Microsoft founder Bill Gates to be able to have his entire multi-billion-dollar estate remain tax exempt made no sense. “I’m not a big fan of multi-generational aristocracy,” he said, adding that Mr. Gates supports the tax. He also called the present situation with the law “insanity” and a perfect example of “dysfunction” in Washington. Because Congress was unable to agree on how to amend the law, it expired this year but will automatically take effect again next year with no changes, even though most members of Congress believe it needs to be reformed.

On health care, the congressman said “Fundamentally, our health-care system is spiraling out of control.” Mr. Murphy, who voted against the reform bill passed by his Democratic colleagues in the House late last year, said the country needs health-care reform, and he proceeded to outline some of the complexities any reform package must address. He said that because no one factor–not the flaws of the fee-for-service model nor malpractice awards nor the costs of end-of-life care, among others–was solely responsible for the problem. But he said that as a nation, “we are less healthy” than other industrialized countries.

The U.S. health-care system does have winners as well as losers, he said: “We have good outcomes for people who have high-end insurance,” and he volunteered the details of the insurance plan that he has as a member of Congress, which he said is available to all federal workers.

He explained the high cost of drugs in the U.S. compared to other countries by saying the pharmaceutical companies claim that the prices have to be higher here because this market supports the research and development needed to create new drugs. Critics question the claims because the cost figures come from the drug companies rather than independent sources.

To address the high price of drugs, Mr. Murphy said he favored allowing the importation of drugs from foreign suppliers; he said he did not favor allowing the government to negotiate the price of pharmaceuticals, which some federal programs, including the Veterans Administration now do in order to obtain drugs at a lower cost.

Touching on a number of other topics, Mr. Murphy described himself as a “big deficit  hawk,” but he said it would be “catastrophic to our economy” to attempt to end deficit spending in a single year. And he said the Supreme Court had “overreached” in its decision to remove the restrictions on corporate contributions to political campaigns. He said House leaders are still determining whether Congress can regulate corporate spending in ways that will be upheld by the court, and he did not yet know whether the court’s decision applies to foreign corporations.

Outside Town Hall a bitterly cold wind blew swirls of dust and sand, but Mr. Murphy said he was glad to be in Ghent Monday and not in Washington, because the capital had just been buried under 30 inches of snow.

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