ILWACO - Introduced as "a really important guy" and as someone who "makes sure our little voice is carried to the federal government," U.S. Rep. Brian Baird stepped between the lunch tables in the Ilwaco High School cafeteria to talk with students from various history and civics classes Friday.
Though he was there mostly to answer questions from the students, Baird also took the opportunity to get the students in touch with what he called the "owner's manual for our country," the U.S. Constitution.
The congressman handed out pocket-sized copies of the document to all the students and then asked them to read the preamble aloud with him. In discussing the state of the country when it was written, one student piped up about how bad England's King George was.
"He was more of a jerk then Benedict Arnold," he said.
Baird also talked about the importance of the Bill of Rights and constitutional amendments.
"Taking away your liberties is not the purpose of the government. Government is there to protect your liberties," he said.
When opening up to questions, Baird immediately was hit with some tough, topical ones. Asked about health care, he said he believes it would be the number one issue in America if it weren't for the war in Iraq.
Another student asked about the risks of the country falling into another depression. To this Baird suggested the students not live in deficit themselves - pay their bills, put money in savings and not get into credit cards.
The national deficit, and how it relates to the war in Iraq, was a topic that Baird was keen on.
"The situation in Iraq is grave and it's sucking money. We're spending about $1.8 billion a week in Iraq. That's with a 'B,'" he said. "The defense budget last year was $453 billion. The Iraq money is over and above that. The president came and said he wanted another $50 billion for Iraq at the start of the year, and he just asked us for another $70 billion on top of that."
Baird said the projected deficit this year nearly equals the defense budget at $430 billion. He said the national debt right now is $8.1 trillion, causing some audible "ooohs" and "wows" from the students and teachers. When asked where the money comes from, he simply said "you."
"We do not have a clear-cut plan right now to pay that money back. We are passing that debt on to you," he said in a resigned tone.
Perhaps the most pertinent question regarding the students themselves came when Baird was asked about the No Child Left Behind Act, which he said "I wish I had my vote back."
"I'd like to modify it for a number of reasons," he said. "We passed the law that put requirements on local schools and we promised that we would give the local school districts money, but we didn't keep our promise. So the local school districts now have to meet certain requirements, but we're not giving them the money to reach those requirements."
As the period bell was nearing, Baird wrapped up his time with the students by thanking them for their attention and good questions, and encouraged them to use their talents and abilities to make their communities a better place.
He also left them with a warning about the perils of falling victim to methamphetamine use.
"This is the worst drug I've ever seen in my life. If somebody is dealing meth to your friends, they're killing your friends, it's that simple," he said. "If you know somebody that's on it, get them help, because you can get off it, but it's really hard. If you know somebody that's dealing, turn them in."