LONG BEACH - U.S. Rep. Brian Baird conducted his 227th town hall meeting since being elected in his district last week in Long Beach.
Baird said he appreciated the cool weather in the Northwest and that Washington, D.C., in the summer is "not a pleasant place. It's good to be home. I'm the luckiest man in the world to represent you."
The congressman spent a few minutes sharing his sadness for the people of London after a series of bombings there, saying "attacking innocent civilians with no warning could happen in any major U.S. city. It's inexcusable. I'm so angry and sad for the families of the victims. We have to be very vigilant and hope they don't have anything cooked up here at home."
Moving on to the good news, Baird said he was instrumental last month in securing millions of dollars to fight international methamphetamine trafficking and improve investigation and prosecution of domestic meth offenses.
"This is a drop in the bucket compared to the magnitude of the problem," he said. "The administration said meth isn't an epidemic. They must be smoking something. Ask anyone involved. Meth is the scourge of the region, much worse than marijuana." He praised Pacific County Sheriff John Didion and his PACNET team "for their great work. Rural sheriffs are outgunned and outmanned but they're beginning to turn the tide."
According to a recent press release from his office, Baird co-founded the bipartisan Congressional Caucus to Fight and Control Methamphetamine in 2000. The mission is to educate other members of Congress about the dangers of meth addiction and work together on legislative approaches to solving the problem. Before coming to Congress, Baird was a clinical psychologist who worked with methamphetamine addicts, learning first-hand the destructive potential of the drug. Information on the National Association of Counties Meth Report is available at www.naco.org.
Lewis and Clark
Baird talked about the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, saying it was a "grand thing for the region;" discussed his sales tax deduction bill, which will return $500 million to Washington taxpayers; and his concern for the lack of medical care for soldiers returning from the Iraq war.
"Soldiers are coming back from Iraq and hearing there's a waiting list at VA facilities, the co-pay is going up and they're being denied service," he said. Congress adjourned without reaching an agreement to add funds to provide for the needs of the soldiers. "It's wrong to send them into combat and shortchange then when they come home," he said. "I'm embarrassed for the country."
Social SecurityTurning to the Social Security, Baird provided a handout outlining results of a recent survey to constituents. He said he received 7,000 responses from people who offered input and some attached letters to the responses. "I read all of them," he said. By far the largest number of people, 93 percent, agreed strongly with the second question in the survey; "We should stop using the Social Security trust fund for other government functions. The government should report the true deficit and not try to hide its borrowing by using Social Security funds." Other results of the survey are available on his Web site - (www.house.gov/baird).
Reports that Social Security is bankrupt are "absolutely false," Baird said. "It will reach a point where the outlay won't keep up with the income, but it's not flat busted." He compared borrowing from the trust fund to "an IOU to yourself, it's hard to pay back."
Baird said millionaires are receiving Social Security payments which means middle- and low-income families are contributing to their payments and advocated raising the cap on wages - currently $90,000 - that people pay Social Security taxes on. Referring to a question on the survey; "To generate more revenue for the program and help it stay solvent, we should raise the cap so higher income earners will pay on all their income," he said if the cap were raised above $90,000 it would generate "a fair bit of revenue."
And, people surveyed strongly disagreed - 67 percent - about allowing workers to put part of their Social Security payments into private accounts. They weren't happy about the proposal to invest part of the trust fund in the stock market "for the good of the program as a whole" either. Forty-nine percent said it was a bad idea. "I'm concerned about the stability of the stock market," Baird said. "Look what happened to stocks after the London bombing."
After a question from the audience about illegal immigrants receiving Social Security, Baird said, "that's a myth. In fact, it's the reverse. They have the funds taken out of their checks, but they're not eligible for Social Security because they're not legal. It's a paradox. They're paying in, but they can't draw it out."
The latest AARP Bulletin reported that illegal immigrants are paying an estimated $7 billion in Social Security taxes, though they won't receive benefits, and last year, that made up an estimated 10 percent of the Social Security surplus. It also reported that illegal immigrants pay $1.5 billion each year in taxes for Medicare for which they aren't eligible.
Taxes and accountabilitySpeaking of his work on the budget committee, Baird said it is "wonderful and terrifying. The real challenge is in health care. The future of Medicare and Medicaid is really scary."
"I don't trust the government," a woman in the audience said.
"Many politicians don't trust the voters," Baird replied.
A man in the audience asked if the tax cuts could be rolled back. Baird said some tax cuts exclusively benefit millionaires. "I doubt if any tax cuts will be repealed in the current regime. The cuts vastly exceed what's needed to solve the Social Security solvency problem."
How can ordinary people find out about what's going on with tax cuts, Social Security and other questions, a woman in the audience asked.
"It's very hard," Baird said. "Many members of Congress don't know." He said information on his Web site provides links, such as to "Thomas" - the Library of Congress - which lists bills, their sponsors and how members of Congress voted. He said the federal budget is also available on-line.
As in past town hall meetings, Baird talked about his attempts to allow members of Congress more time to read huge bills before voting on them. He said the omnibus appropriations bill was 3-feet tall, three copies were available and they had less than a day to read it. "It's an OSHA violation just to pick it up," he said. "I asked who had read it. No one had. In it was the provision allowing Congress to look at personal tax returns. One Congressman told me I take my job too seriously."
A woman asked Baird what Democrats are doing in light of the election next year of House and Senate members.
"This is a non-partisan meeting," Baird said, "but I'll answer the question anyway. Lots but not enough."
Turning to the "No Child Left Behind" act, Baird said he wished he hadn't voted for it. "Not all children can pass the standardized tests and schools are failing because they can't pass. It's ridiculous. It should be recalled."
War in IraqA man in the audience brought up the Iraq situation.
Baird suggested that there be a timetable for troop withdrawal, but it should not be made public.
He said he has visited wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital. Billions of dollars have been spent and there's no easy solution.
"The infrastructure needs to be rebuilt by Iraqis, not by Halliburton," he said. "We should have killed Saddam Hussein. We've done a terrible job of using our friends in the region, we thumbed our noses at them. We need to reassure them we won't establish a permanent base over there. And there's anger in the region fueled by the Palestine-Israeli conflict. It's hard to see us getting out without more casualties and more money. We need reasonable negotiations on all sides. Our energy policy got us into a lot of trouble over there."
Answering a question from the audience about filling vacancies on the Supreme Court, Baird said appointments should be made of people who fit the mold of the member departing.
And, Baird said he voted for additional funding for public broadcasting.
Rainer Houser, the newly hired Ocean Beach School District superintendent, told Baird he'd never seen a member of Congress at town meetings as often as Baird. "I applaud you," he said. "And I really appreciate that you're willing to listen and share your ethical and honest perspective."
Baird ended the meeting by advocating allowing high school dropouts to serve in the military. "We should give them the opportunity to serve," he said. "it's wrong to say 'If you're a dropout, you can't serve.' It would get them off the streets and reduce unemployment and the crime rate."