It is the economy

by Norm Winick

James Carville’s exhortation — it’s the economy, stupid — is as true today as it was in 1992. About 75 area residents gathered for a town meeting at the Yates City Community Center in southeastern Knox County. They were joined by Congressman Ray LaHood (R-Peoria), freshman State Senator Dale Risinger (R-Peoria) and State Representative Don Moffitt (R-Gilson). To the total surprise of LaHood, there was not one question asked publicly about the potential war with Iraq; not one question about terrorism; not one question about taxes; not one question about the future of the space program. Instead, there were dozens of questions about the economy — spanning topics from out-of-control health care costs to insurance costs to the loss of area manufacturing jobs — mostly from angry residents, the victims of a sour economy.

While Moffitt learned much from Bill Clinton and felt the audience’s pain with sympathetic responses, LaHood was almost hostile. Several times, he verbally sparred with audience members wanting a federal response to their economic problems. Moffitt expressed indignation at Maytag’s decision to close their Galesburg facility and defended and detailed his and other officials’ efforts to contact the firm for months previous — to no avail. LaHood argued with a questioner, "Your expectation is that you think a politician can tell a company like Caterpillar what to do. We can’t. Our base of employment in Central Illinois is industrial jobs and this nation is moving away from manufacturing jobs. Those days are gone. We’ve taken our lumps but there are people trying to attract other types of employers to this area."

That wasn’t a crowd-pleasing answer. One resident angrily exclaimed, "You’ve all given up on manufacturing in America."

Moffitt, sensing the rising resentment in the audience, followed up by saying that he’s sponsoring a bill in the legislature with a call-back provision. "If a company gets government money and then the jobs leave, they pay the money back." That was a crowd-pleaser.

When a local resident asked why a friend of his, needing a transplant, was charged $38,000 for harvesting the organ which he eventually received and learned, afterwards, that "no insurance company pays to harvest organs," LaHood responded with a commentary on what a great health care system we have. He said the high costs are primarily to blame on the trial lawyers and their outrageous lawsuits. He said that if there was a limit on settlements, malpractice insurance costs, and health care costs would go down. Tort reform is the answer, he said, expressing support for a $250,000 limit on pain and suffering damages. Risinger, who said little throughout the evening, agreed.

Moffitt was sympathetic to the resident and asked for details on the incident — saying he’d look into it.

LaHood did add that tort reform would make insurance more affordable and help the 40 million Americans who have no health insurance afford it.

Campaign reform did come up with LaHood expressing general satisfaction with the controls currently in place. Moffitt was more to the point: "I have sent campaign contributions back when they came from a group advocating causes I don’t believe in or am directly opposed to." Risinger chimed in with a ditto, "I didn’t accept any money from gambling interests."

The forum kept getting back to the economy, with LaHood talking about the President’s tax plan. "The Bush tax plan will not be the proposal we pass. The economy is the issue that will be dominant nationwide in a year. My take is that the economy is not bad. The problem is the stock market. Average people have seen their retirement funds diminish. That’s why they are so angry and concerned about the economy. What he’s proposing [the President] is probably too much and much too expensive. I think we’re close to the stock market taking a turn. It’s a roller coaster and a lot of people who had invested their 401k’s in the market had not invested in the market before."

As the evening wore on, LaHood had an opportunity to talk about some other issues. He expressed support for the President’s hydrogen initiative and promoted biodiesel and ethanol use as ways to get away from our dependence on foreign oil. In his only clear break from the administration, he said emphatically that "we need an energy plan."

Washington, D.C. has changed dramatically since 9/11, LaHood explained: "It’s now an armed camp. Things that were easy before, such as arranging tours and seeing the sights, now need Congressional, intervention to arrange."

The final question came from an audience member asking if LaHood supported the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. LaHood said he didn’t know anything about it. He asked the questioner, "Do you support it?" and received a prompt, "no." "Then I should have said I oppose it, too."

He did stay around and answered a few direct questions. While he previously had stated that he held out hope for a peaceful settlement in Iraq, those hopes have diminished. "The prospects don’t look very good. The President is getting impatient. He has done everything the people have asked him to do and the only way I think war could possibly be avoided is if Saddam would leave the country and I don’t see that happening." He added that he anticipates the U.S. occupying Iraq after a short war for as long as ten years."

LaHood says he also trusts that the Justice Department has reason to hold those people they have arrested in the war on terrorism. Even though several detainees are from Peoria, LaHood says no one has asked him for any help — legal or otherwise —or claimed that they were being held without cause.