By Michele Bourdieu
MOHAWK -- First District Congressman Dan Benishek (R-Iron County) traveled to Mohawk last week to field constituents' questions and hear their concerns on issues ranging from health care to forests to Social Security and taxes.
Addressing a small crowd last Thursday morning, Dec. 29, in Slim's Café, Benishek gave a short introduction, noting his recent work has consisted of reading the legislation, trying to get spending under control and trying to vote on issues that affect Michigan, especially those issues that his constituents in the First District (the Upper Peninsula and parts of northern Michigan) would want him to vote on.
Benishek said his office, in this past year, has received 69,000 comments -- letters, emails and phone calls -- from constituents.
"We really have tried to answer them individually," he said.
In addition, his office received 1800 requests on federal issues such as veterans' benefits, post office questions, etc.
Michigan First District Congressman Dan Benishek greets constituents during a visit to Mohawk, Mich., on Dec. 29, 2011. (Videos by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)
Brent Lekvin of Houghton asked Benishek what has been the most surprising thing to happen to him as a newcomer to Congress.
"The multitude of issues," Benishek replied. "The amount of reading involved and getting up to speed on these issues."
A comment from one constituent concerned the Republicans' blocking of bills in the present Congress.
"This Congress has been the least productive in history," the person said. "It seems that every bill that comes through has a poison pill put into it."
As an example of a "poison pill," he mentioned the Keystone XL Pipeline for Tar Sands Oil, added to the recent tax bill.
This constituent explained what he meant by "poison pill": "These bills go through and they have a whole bunch of stuff in them that doesn't have anything to do with the actual issue," he said. "I think it's on purpose."
Benishek accused the Senate of inaction.
"There's 28 bills that we passed that are sitting in the Senate (not acted on)," Benishek said. "It's frustrating when the Senate doesn't act."
Benishek noted the Senate decided to go on vacation for Christmas, preventing the finalizing of bills such as the budget and holding up projects that depend on the budget.
"Part of the problem is we don't have a budget," he said. "When we're funding the government two months at a time it's difficult to get these long-term expenditures into the budget."
One constituent, noting the open-ended character of the budget process, asked if there was ever a plan to put a cap on spending to avoid the government's huge deficit.
Benishek mentioned the Ryan budget, which was a plan to eliminate the debt over 40 years, without raising taxes, like a mortgage; however, the issue is complicated by the fact that people hesitate to make cuts in the "mandatory spending" -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and by the fact that the U.S. borrows so much money from China.
Dr. Samuel Lockwood of Lake Linden asked Benishek if he could help with a grant for the Village of Lake Linden to fund a farmers' market and a gluten-free kitchen. The grant would provide federal funding through the State of Michigan's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Farm to Food program. The grant would allow the Old School Baking Company, based in the E-Center (former St. Joseph School) Building in Lake Linden, to develop a completely gluten-free kitchen for producing a wide array of gluten-free products.
Dr. Samuel Lockwood seeks Benishek's help in acquiring Farm to Food grant funds for the Village of Lake Linden. The federal funds, through the state program, would finance a farmers' market and a gluten-free kitchen. (Photo by Allan Baker for Keweenaw Now)
According to Ed Fisher, Village of Lake Linden president, "The grant has been favorably received, but the funds are not available at the moment."
Benishek said he would try to help, as long as the grant exists.
Despite the frustration with the budget, Benishek indicated he is opposed to rushing legislation.
"To have disagreement and argument -- that's a good thing," he said, "so that we don't move too fast."
Benishek said he believed Obama's health care reform bill was passed too fast, without enough argument, before people understood what was in it.
"Now they're understanding that it's not making our health care any cheaper. It's making things more expensive," Benishek noted.
A woman who said she was on Medicare disagreed.
"I'm not sure you can say the health care bill was rushed through," she said. "I saw dialogue for over a year (on C-SPAN) and discussion and efforts to work on it. Maybe there's a different perspective, but I feel that the health bill overall is a good thing and would help control costs in this country."
Noting how some young people in this area have to work two jobs and still don't have health care, she said she feels Obama's bill is good for the 99 percent.
"They already cut $500 billion out of Medicare to pay for Mr. Obama's health care," Benishek said.* (See note below.)
He added he believed Obama's health care bill would be a problem for small hospitals in the Upper Peninsula.
Benishek discusses his views on health care reform. A constituent argues that Medicare has been much better for her than private insurance.
Rev. Robert Langseth expressed concern about federal forests and taxing companies that extract natural resources that belong to the local community. He said Minnesota's law on taxing taconite mining companies so that some of the profits stay in the local community should be a model.
Benishek talks about streamlining the process of timber sales in federal forests.
Constituents asked Benishek about the future of Social Security as a trust fund, some challenging the idea of privatizing it. First, a young person asked if someone now age 29 can look forward to receiving Social Security at retirement. Next, a senior citizen now on Social Security spoke about defending it.
Congressman Benishek fields constituents' questions on Social Security.
One constituent expressed her belief that taxing the wealthy is not the same as taxing high-income earners, who use their money to create jobs. Benishek noted the wealthy pay most of the taxes in this country.
"Forty-five percent of Americans don't pay income tax," he added.
Benishek expresses his opposition to raising taxes on business owners.
A question on whether the budget has ever dropped in the time of war led Benishek to a criticism of present defense spending -- not only for the war in Afghanistan, but for supporting troops in Germany and other countries that he feels should be paying for their own defense. He said he was against the U.S. spending defense money in Libya and favors withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
"I went to Afghanistan. I don't think it's a winnable war," Benishek said. "I think we should be out of there."
Benishek also noted he was against "the whole Libya thing." He said he voted against the recent defense appropriations bill.
Dan Schulz of Houghton, an electrical engineering student at Michigan State University, asked Benishek what advice he would give to a college student today.
"I wanted to live in the U.P. That's why I went to med school," Benishek said. "My Dad was killed in a mine. My mother was a widow when I grew up. I stayed in school."
Benishek also noted he believed the military is a good opportunity for young people.
"When you get out you have a lot of options," he said.
Benishek agreed with a constituent that the fact that General Electric paid no taxes was unconscionable.
"I would rather not raise anybody's taxes," Benishek said. "You send money to that hole in Washington and you don't know what they're going to do with it."
Benishek said he's a Republican because he's a fiscal conservative. He ran for Congress, he said, because of the deficit problem. He believes every part of the federal government should be cut.
"I think I vote the way the majority of the people in the district want me to vote," he said.
In fact, Benishek sends out frequent email newsletters telling constituents about current actions in the House of Representatives. He also sends flyers listing a number of issues and asking constituents to check their priorities -- Social Security, jobs, economy, health care, etc. Keweenaw Now asked the Congressman why this list never includes environmental protection as a possible priority.
"You can write it in!" he said.
When asked if environmental protection is a priority for him, considering the potential mining development now going on in the Upper Peninsula, near Lake Superior, Benishek said he believes safety is certainly important but there should be a balance between environment and jobs. He said he has visited Rio Tinto / Kennecott's Eagle Mine near Big Bay and is convinced it is being done safely with protection for the water.
Former Keweenaw County Commissioner Don Keith of Eagle Harbor was positive about the Congressman's presentation.
"Generally I support Mr. Benishek," Keith said. "I do have a concern about his forestry proposal. I just want to be sure that we maintain a high level of stewardship."
Vance Lekvin of Houghton, a student of business and economics at Ripon College in Wisconsin, said he had a good impression of Benishek.
"I think he has the right ideas," Vance noted. "I think he's using common sense. I like the fact that he's trying to represent his constituents as well as he can."
*Editor's Note: FactCheck.org clarifies this $500 billion as cost saving for the future, not cuts to the present Medicare budget or benefits: "Whatever you want to call them, it's a $500 billion reduction in the growth of future spending over 10 years, not a slashing of the current Medicare budget or benefits. It's true that those who get their coverage through Medicare Advantage's private plans (about 22 percent of Medicare enrollees) would see fewer add-on benefits; the bill aims to reduce the heftier payments made by the government to Medicare Advantage plans, compared with regular fee-for-service Medicare. The Democrats' bill also boosts certain benefits: It makes preventive care free and closes the 'doughnut hole,' a current gap in prescription drug coverage for seniors." [See FactCheck.org, 3/19/10]