U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, faced challenging questions Tuesday night on gun control, health care, the economy and the influence of money in politics during a 90-minute constituent forum in Roger Sherman School.
But Doug Belfiore of Trumbull, the second of roughly two dozen speakers, said a more fundamental issue is that many people no longer trust their elected officials. "People have been disillusioned and they've lost trust," he said.
Belfiore said he advised his children five years ago that when they had graduated from college to invest in real estate, but after the economy collapsed in 2008, the American dream "shattered" and his children "have no chance of getting into a house." Belfiore added that the value of his own house had declined by 25 percent.
"Companies are doing great. The middle class is not doing great," Belfiore said.
Belfiore asked Himes how the American people can trust their elected officials when they accept campaign contributions from big banks, which he said played a major role in the economic crash of 2008. "Nobody on Wall Street has been even indicted, so how can we trust anyone in government right now?" Belfiore asked.
Himes said Americans had "every right to be angry with their government."
The congressman, elected to a third term last November, said elected officials can do their best to make sure what happened in 2008 doesn't happen again by ensuring that people who get mortgages are able to pay them off and by not allowing Wall Street to put high-risk mortgages into securitized products. Regarding campaign contributions from big banks, Himes said he works in a system where politicians compete by raising money and that money "warps the system."
"It makes you feel if you're not writing $10,000 checks, you're not listened to," Himes said. He said he was a co-author of two constitutional amendments before the U.S. Congress that are designed to limit the influence of money on the political system.
Chris Carpenter of Monroe said the influence of money was much bigger. "No one talks about the [Federal Reserve] printing money as a bad thing. They've been printing money for the last three to four years. If we couldn't print our own money, we'd be bankrupt. We'd be like Greece," he said.
Himes said the Federal Reserve had put "a ton of cash out into the marketplace" and that the dangers of that were inflation and the collapse of the dollar. But Himes said neither had happened in the last four years and that Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, has to "unwind it carefully."
"Bernanke has a real challenge on his hands," Himes said.
Bob Mac Guffie of Fairfield challenged Himes to commit, if another financial crisis happens, not to support legislation that would tax consumer savings accounts and not to support government-sponsored, guaranteed retirement accounts.
"I don't make advance pledges on how I vote on any legislation," Himes said, though he added that he couldn't imagine voting for a tax on savings or on a proposal to transfer Americans' 401(k) retirement accounts to government-sponsored, guaranteed retirement accounts.
On health care, Himes said the Affordable Care Act signed into law by President Obama "didn't go nearly far enough at getting at the fundamental drivers of health-care inflation." Under the current system, health care providers get paid for doing a lot of tests, and the cost of litigation forces them to practice defensive medicine, Himes said. He added that competitive bidding didn't exist for medical devices and that nobody gets paid to practice preventative medicine, such as losing weight, and quitting smoking and drinking alcohol.
Himes faced a series of questions on why the cost of health insurance was rising when President Obama, according to several audience members, had said it would decline under the Affordable Care Act. But Himes said, "Nobody ever sold the bill as, `Your health-care costs are going to go down.' "
Himes added that the Affordable Care Act wouldn't add to the federal deficit because it was paid for through taxes, unlike an expansion of Medicare under President George W. Bush that wasn't paid for. "It doesn't add to the deficit," Himes said of the Affordable Care Act, "and I don't know that anyone marketed it that it's going to save us money."
Others questioned whether the federal government was becoming too intrusive and violating the U.S. Constitution under the Patriot Act, which was enacted after terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a drone program that targets people for assassination without a formal declaration of war or congressional oversight.
Himes said many people think the federal government overreached on the Patriot Act and he referenced a recent filibuster by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who wanted the Obama administration to answer whether it believed drones could be used against Americans. "A fundamental principle of the Constitution is the military cannot operate against U.S. citizens on U.S. soil," Himes said. "I wish the attorney general had come out 10 seconds later and said, `Absolutely not.' "
"There's got to be some oversight on that," Himes added of the use of drones.
In response to another question, Himes said he couldn't support the Defense of Marriage Act because marriage was a legal institution in America and everyone is equal before the law. "As far as I'm concerned, the government has no business discriminating," he said.
Before he opened the meeting to public comment, Himes said state legislators would debate gun control measures on Wednesday that included universal background checks, a 10-round limit in magazines and banning more types of weapons. "That is a good deal more comprehensive than what you're likely to see in Washington," he said. He said requiring everyone to undergo a background check before buying a gun -- which would close the loophole for gun shows and private sales -- is the only proposal that appeared to have consensus in Congress.
Himes said he supported a 10-round limit, but said it is unlikely to pass.
Later, Mac Guffie said a woman who is alone at home when two or three people break into her house can use more than a 10-round magazine. "So that's what the high-capacity magazines are all about," he said.
After David Bailey of Monroe questioned why regulations on guns couldn't be viewed the same way as regulations on cars, Himes concurred, saying cars are more dangerous than guns, but people aren't labeled "anti-car" or "pro-car." Himes added that no constitutional right was unregulated and that an individual's rights and liberties extend only to the point where they don't infringe on someone else's rights, liberties or public safety.
Regarding the economy, Himes said while it is not fully recovered, it is much better than four years ago. Back then, Himes said, the economy was contracting at a rate of 8 percent and the nation was losing 750,000 jobs a month. Now, the economy is growing at a rate of 2 to 3 percent and 200,000 to 250,000 jobs are being added monthly, Himes said. He said the federal budget deficit was 11 percent of gross domestic product four years ago, but is only 5 percent of GDP now due to the economy's growth.
Himes said the budget could have significant savings due to wars in the Middle East winding down and by simplifying the tax code. He said Social Security and Medicare are "not near-term problems" and both were "fine for current recipients." Further out, Himes said Congress would look at "means testing" those programs. Reforming those programs also would lower their long-term unfunded liabilities, he said.
But the top thing that federal, state and local governments could do to secure their fiscal futures is "bending the curve" on the cost of health care, Himes said. "That is really the key fiscal issue this country faces," he said.