Public asks Himes to discuss biggest issues facing Congress

U.S. Rep Jim Himes seen here earlier in the week in Darien toured the district talking to constituents over the last week. — Ken Borsuk photo

US Rep Jim Himes seen here earlier in the week in Darien toured the district talking to constituents this past week.
— Ken Borsuk photo

Lower Fairfield County residents got a chance to speak their minds last week at a town meeting led by U.S. Rep Jim Himes (D-4th District), who sought input from constituents on the issues currently facing Congress.

To kick off the meeting at Greenwich Town Hall, Mr. Himes, a Cos Cob resident, spoke about three topics he said were front and center for most citizens, including immigration reform, gun safety and the economy.

Mr. Himes said he was optimistic that the opportunity to pass a “comprehensive” immigration reform bill would be possible in the coming months. The bill would consist of three essential parts. The first would address border security, which is important but not the only issue to focus on since roughly half of the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States haven’t illegally crossed borders but rather let their Visas expire, Mr. Himes said. There will also be the option to create a mechanism that allows businesses to verify that those they hire are legally eligible to work. The final piece of the potential bill is the most controversial element, he said, because it would implement an “Earned Path to Citizenship” system for illegal immigrants.

The system would deport illegal immigrants who did not register with the program or who pose security risks or have criminal backgrounds. For the rest of the immigrants, a deal would be made. If individuals were able to keep a job, pay taxes, abide by U.S. laws, learn English, and pay a “meaningful penalty” for breaking the country’s immigration laws, they would eventually be eligible to apply for a green card, behind those who initially applied for one properly.

Gun control

The second topic Mr. Himes addressed was gun safety, after what he described as a “historic week” when Connecticut passed the toughest gun legislation in the country. Mr. Himes said he was proud of the state for passing strict gun safety measures that also maintained residents’ Second Amendment rights. But despite this major stride, he said, “we can do better.”

Mr. Himes reported that Congress may be on the path to passing universal background check requirements for anyone who purchases a gun, along with gun trafficking measures and a reform of access to mental health services. However, he said, additional measures he is in favor of, such as capping gun magazine rounds at 10 and banning assault weapons on the federal level, are unlikely to pass. Given the dramatic divide among members of Congress concerning gun laws, the body “may have a hard time doing anything” comprehensive because of the emotional nature of the debate, he said, calling it a “tough fight.”

Economic issues

The final topic concerned the economy and the country’s deficit. Mr. Himes, who was sworn into office for his first term at the height of the economic crisis in 2009, said the profound recession the country found itself in four years ago has clearly eased.

The current state of the country is “no cause for celebration,” Mr. Himes said, but the United States has seen job growth and a recovered stock market, both steps in the right direction. Additionally, the deficit in 2009 was a staggering $1.5 trillion, whereas today it is nearly half that number. The key to continued success, especially if the country hopes to be considered a world leader in the future, will be keeping up with infrastructure and vastly improving education, he said.

When it was time for the public to speak, about 20 individuals stepped up to the podium to ask questions of Mr. Himes and to voice their concerns. Hot topics included Social Security, health care and gun control, along with an assortment of other issues.

Joe Humphrey of Greenwich asked the congressman what could be done to change the Consumer Price Index as it relates to Social Security benefits. Mr. Himes explained that the president recently released a budget that will offer a transitioning of the index, which is used to calculate the cost of living and determines the kinds of Social Security benefits seniors receive. The transition into a Chained Consumer Price Index, which has been the source of much criticism from Democrats, would slow the growth of cost-of-living adjustments, he said.

The most important thing to consider regarding this change, however, is ensuring that seniors with small incomes are not hurt, Mr. Himes said. With a fair number of single senior citizens living on about $15,000 per year, any decrease in their Social Security benefits would cause a devastating change to their income, he said. And although Mr. Himes is open to discussion on the topic, he said, citizens should never have to choose between buying the medicines they need and buying food, which could happen if the index isn’t altered properly.

Greenwich resident John Blankley told Mr. Himes that he had more of an “injunction” than a question and suggested that the congressman be careful in making sweeping changes to economic policies. The United Kingdom’s austerity program drove the state into an additional recession “totally needlessly,” Mr. Blankley, a British native, said. Accordingly, planning to reduce the deficit by a vast amount in a short period of time is too risky, he said. The trick to addressing fiscal issues is timing, or else the measures could be more damaging than helpful, he added.

Mr. Himes agreed with Mr. Blankley that “timing is everything” when it comes to economic changes, but added that the United States had steered itself through the recession fairly successfully, even though there is more work to be done.

Rich Shapiro, another town resident, asked Mr. Himes to address the Social Security disability system. The program, Mr. Shapiro claimed, is exploding and nearly out of funding, meaning taxpayers have to pick up the slack. He asked the congressman if the system was reasonable or if taxpayers were being asked to pay for a government program that is “out of control.”

Mr. Himes explained to the audience that Social Security disability checks are sent to citizens who are unable to work and that the number of such individuals has risen greatly within the last five years. As the country’s population ages, many people appear to be using Social Security disability as an alternative to unemployment for two reasons, he said. The first is that some individuals claim to be injured fraudulently by finding doctors who agree to qualify them as disabled. Those people should be prosecuted, Mr. Himes said. The second reason is more of a gray area. It seems, for example, that people who had extreme back pain for years and never spoke up about it are now choosing to “raise their hand” on the issue because they are out of work, he said.

The balance, he added, should be ensuring that the country has a safety net for disabled people who are unable to work while simultaneously ensuring that the disability program is not being used as an alternative to gainful employment.

Bipartisanship in Congress

Another Greenwich resident asked Mr. Himes about his participation in a bipartisan weekly breakfast and if it had changed the dialogue between Democrats and Republicans. He also asked the congressman about his position on implementing a carbon usage fee in the country.

Mr. Himes explained that the breakfast group, composed of 10 members of each party who work together on legislation each Tuesday morning, had been extremely useful in opening up conversations between the two groups.

“It’s pretty hard to say no to a friend, it turns out,” so establishing relationships with members of opposite parties has greatly increased respect between opposing sides, Mr. Himes said. Individuals are willing to work in a “slightly more honest dialogue” after they have established real relationships with one another, he added.

As for the carbon usage fee, Mr. Himes said he would be in favor of it as long as it was implemented slowly and did not affect vulnerable groups of people, such as poorer families who rely on gas to get to work and therefore feed themselves. Additionally, it would be important to take into account states like West Virginia, where coal is a leading export, and Florida, which generates all of its electricity burning the coal that has been mined in places like West Virginia, Mr. Himes said. A carbon usage fee could be useful, he added, but only if it’s something that the country could “ease into.”

Glass-Steagall concerns

Perhaps the most heated issue of the day, addressed by several members of the public, was the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which took place in the 1990s and removed provisions in the law that prevented commercial banks from being investment banks. One Greenwich resident asked Mr. Himes if he would reinstitute the act, telling him “the lives of the citizens are in your hands.”

Mr. Himes said he agreed that the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act was likely the capstone of the deregulation and irresponsibility that led to the country’s recent financial crisis. Despite that, Mr. Himes said, the government has been given plenty of new tools to deal with “too big to fail” issues, including requiring major banks to compose a plan for their own dissolution.

He added that the Federal Reserve has the authority to unwind such banks, brokerages, and other financial institutions if they deem it necessary. Nevertheless, Mr. Himes said, the country has not done enough to prevent further too-big-to-fail scenarios. Perhaps some of the larger financial institutions should be broken up, but it would have to be done very carefully while acknowledging that plenty of the fiscal irresponsibility that took place during the recession happened outside of those key institutions, Mr. Himes said.

Delving into a different issue, Stamford resident John Clark asked Mr. Himes what was being done about climate change.

“We’re not doing nearly enough to counter climate change,” the congressman said.

The good news, Mr. Himes said, is that in the last year the country has put less carbon and methane gas into the atmosphere than at any time in the last 15 years, due, in part, to the fact that coal generators are being converted to natural gas. Regardless, Mr. Himes said, much more needs to be done to combat the issue, which is a “very, very politicized topic in Washington today.” This part of the world, specifically, understands the catastrophic storms that can result from climate change, and “you can count on me to be pretty aggressive in pushing” for further action, Mr. Himes said.

In closing the meeting, Mr. Himes thanked participants for speaking, noting that opinions differed vastly within the group, which is an important part of upholding a democracy.

“What we’re doing here, of course, is one of the things that distinguishes our country, which is having exactly this discussion,” Mr. Himes said.


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