More than 100 people gathered at Shelton City Hall Saturday (April 6) to give U.S. Rep. Jim Himes earfuls on subjects from guns to immigration to the federal budget.
The meeting was one of a series of town hall-style forums that Himes held Saturday across Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District, which includes Oxford and most of Shelton, as well as the rest of Fairfield County.
He said it was especially important to meet in Shelton because district reapportionment shifted more of the city out of the 3rd District and into the 4th as of the 2012 election.
Himes now represents nearly all of Shelton.
Himes won that part of the city last November against Republican challenger Steve Obsitnik by a margin of 707 votes, the first time he won a majority of Shelton voters.
Guns, School Security
Predictably, Washington’s response to the Sandy Hook tragedy was not far from residents’ minds during Saturday’s forum.
While the state Legislature and Gov. Dannel Malloy approved new gun control laws last week, many are pressing Congress to enact new laws as well.
On the topic of guns, questions came up Saturday from both sides of the issue. One woman asked Himes if he supports private ownership for defensive purposes while another woman said common sense tells her that fewer guns would mean less violence.
Himes said he supports the right to own appropriate weaponry, but is concerned about high-powered guns with high-capacity, 30-round magazines.
He thought the legislation requiring mandatory background checks for all gun purchases has a chance of passing Congress, but most other proposals do not.
And in answer to a question from Shelton Board of Apportionment & Taxation member Judson Crawford, Himes said he supported providing federal grants to help fund school security improvements.
Signs Of ‘Thaw’
Himes started the meeting by observing that the 112th Congress (2011-2012) earned its low popularity rating with its divisive partisan gridlock, but there are signs of a political “thaw” occurring with the newly elected 113th Congress.
This is good news for those who want to pass immigration reform and replace the package of across-the-board budget cuts known as the “sequester” with a comprehensive budget compromise, Himes said. He added that both have a good chance of passing this summer.
Himes noted that while unemployment remains too high, the economy is in much better shape than in January 2009 when he was first sworn in, a month when the country lost more than 700,000 jobs. He said the same about the budget deficit, which has declined from 9 percent of GDP to 5 percent this year.
“Nobody is celebrating where we are today,” he said, but it’s “a different world” than it was then.
He said Congress has eliminated $3 trillion in debt with a combination of tax increases and spending cuts, and he felt the $4 trillion recommended by the Simpson-Bowles Commission is within reach.
In response to a questions about taxes and entitlements, he said he favored reaching that number with $400 billion in tax increases on wealthy people and the rest in spending cuts, possibly including changing the age for Social Security eligibility.
Campaign Finance, Sequester
A Trumbull resident blamed most of America’s political divisiveness on the influence of large amounts of money on political campaigns.
Himes noted he raised $4 million for his 2012 re-election campaign in order to remain competitive, but agreed that campaign money is a problem.
“If you have a lot of money, you have a bigger voice in Washington, and that’s not the way it should be,” he said.
He noted he is a co-sponsor for two proposed constitutional amendments that would address the campaign finance issue.
Himes thanked a Shelton business executive for pointing out that the sequester would soon defund his company’s Defense Department contracts and force the layoff of up to half of the company’s 200 employees.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t offer much hope of fixing the problem before the cuts affect the local business. The soonest Himes said he saw a resolution would be in June, although the company official said the layoffs would probably happen by then.
But Himes said it is important for companies and agencies to relate their sequester-related difficulties so the issue is viewed as something that affects real people and not as an abstraction.
Farms And Food
Food and agriculture subsidies were another topic that came up several times.
Himes said he favored eliminating federal subsidies to big agriculture companies, along with those to oil, gas and coal companies, and he told another questioner that he supported labeling for genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which are usual designer crops sold by big companies like Monsanto.
At the end of the meeting, a local high school student told how he had to explain what broccoli and celery were to a child whose family was too poor to afford vegetables. “Why is eating healthy a privilege?” the student asked.
Himes linked it to the problem of health care costs, which earlier in the meeting he had blamed as one of the primary factors threatening government entitlement programs.
He noted that the grain crops that receive the bulk of the federal agriculture subsidies become cheap ingredients in the processed foods and soft drinks that are related to the nation’s obesity epidemic.
“We pay for each other’s lack of health,” Himes said.