With three of her four children getting ready to retire over the next decade, Delores in Marysville wanted to chat about Social Security and Medicare.
Walter in Mount Vernon wondered about insider trading in Congress.
And Jack in Anacortes wanted to talk about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project.
Borrowing the style of a call-in radio talk show, Congressman Rick Larsen held a “telephone town hall” with residents of the 2nd District Wednesday. The Everett Democrat fielded questions from a baker’s dozen of the nearly 600 people who dialed in.
Larsen noted President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address from the night before, but the Everett Democrat mostly focused on jobs and financial issues during his one-hour tele-town hall.
“I think he was right to emphasize American ingenuity and a new era of American manufacturing as the right path to move forward,” said Larsen, referring to Obama’s speech, before quickly turning to his own work on jobs issues.
Larsen said the passage of the six-year transportation reauthorization bill would be the single biggest thing that Congress could do to create jobs in the local private sector.
He said he would continue to push for a “robust surface transportation bill” that would improve the nation’s roads, bridges and highways and create jobs.
Larsen also touted the passage of a bill that gives businesses incentives if they hire veterans who are returning home, and said he wanted to help small businesses export their products overseas.
“We have an opportunity to grow our export capacity and create jobs and I’m committed to doing that,” he said, noting that one in three jobs in Washington state depends on exports.
Callers who dialed in to ask the congressman a question mostly gave just their first names, and Jack in Anacortes began by asking Larsen’s position on the Keystone XL pipeline, and added that the Obama Administration’s economic plan “has more to do with smoke and mirrors and environmentalist rhetoric than jobs.”
Larsen stressed the pipeline route was in the Midwest, nowhere near Washington state, and the review process was continuing.
Some Republicans were opposed to the original route, he said, and the administration had been forced into making a decision now. Regardless, the permit process will continue.
“I haven’t taken a position on it,” he added. “I’m really focussed on the jobs in our district.”
Larsen said he was working with Alcoa and the Bonneville Power Administration to guarantee a long-term contract that would keep electricity affordable in Ferndale, and also worked with Boeing on its successful effort to land the air-refueling tanker contract that means 10,000 jobs in the Everett area.
“Nothing smoke and mirrors about that,” Larsen said.
When asked his thoughts on legislators who used insider information to make money off the sale and purchase of stocks — a topic the president touched on during his speech Tuesday — Larsen recalled that he was a co-sponsor of the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act.
Though there are rules prohibiting federal employees from trading stocks based on information they get while on the job, Larsen said the STOCK Act was a good and needed law.
“I’m with you on this,” Larsen told the caller. “This is a job about public service.”
He also said he supported the work of Sen. Bernie Sanders to overturn the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in the Citizens United case, which lets corporations and unions spend an unlimited amount of money on political campaigns.
“I think that is wrong and we need to overturn that as well,” Larsen said of the high court’s controversial decision.
Another caller, David in Marysville, noted that it was recently reported that one candidate for president had paid an income tax rate of 14 percent.
David said he received Social Security disability payments, and his family’s income was between $38,000 and $42,000.
“Yet I pay 17 percent,” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair. There must be something going on.”
Larsen was quick to name the candidate — Republican Mitt Romney — and called the taxing disparity “fundamental unfairness.” He said the tax code should be modified. The country’s top earners should pay a tax rate comparable to that used during the Clinton Administration, which Larsen added was a period of high economic growth.
The issue would come up during the fall election season, Larsen added, but that wasn’t a bad thing.
“It’s a debate that America should always be having,” he said.
Several questions during the town hall came from Whidbey Island. Shannon in Oak Harbor said her family has struggled with chronic unemployment, and said her adult son had just moved back home, without a job.
When she went to her bank to see if she could get her mortgage payments reduced, no one wanted to talk.
“I was told, ‘You’re making your payments so you don’t need our help,'” she recalled.
She wanted to know what could be done to make financial institutions help the middle class, the elderly and the working poor, instead of strictly the well-off.
Larsen said he heard from many of his constituents after the banks were bailed out.
There was no easy, short-term solution that could resolve the lack of lending, Larsen said, though he encouraged the caller to contact his office after the town hall for assistance with her personal situation.
Larsen was also asked how he expected to get any of his bills passed in a Republican-dominated Congress.
People believe that Congress is broken, Larsen acknowledged.
“I know people are frustrated by Congress’ general seemingly inability to work together on big issues,” he said. “I’m frustrated with that as well.”
While there has been some bipartisan success, it’s not received great fanfare in the media.
For his part, Larsen said he knows what it takes to get something done in Congress.
“You increase your odds the harder you work,” he said.