By Erika Sosa, Rider University
In the heated race for New Jersey’s 12th Congressional District, incumbent U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-Hopewell Township) and his opponent Republican Eric Beck of South Brunswick took part in a debate last week at Rider University during which they discussed their views about the country’s finances, federal support to America’s cities, school vouchers, and other topics.
America is in extreme debt that continues to get worse and Republicans are to blame, according to Holt.
“The unhealthiest part of this situation is how we got to this so-called fiscal cliff,” Holt stated. “A year-and-a-half ago, the Republican leadership in Congress refused to pay our debts, for the first time in American history. This country has had debts for all but a couple of years of our entire history, going back to the American Revolution. But we always paid down our debts. And then they said, no, we won’t do it unless you deal with the deficit. But we won’t let you deal with the deficit in any responsible way by looking at both sides of the ledger. You must deal with it only through cuts.”
While Republicans view things like Medicare and Social Security “as problems,” Holt said he sees them as “important programs that tie this country together.” He continued: “We can deal with the income and the outgo if we do it in a responsible way…. We have to look at the revenue we collect – taxes – not as something that is onerous or punitive but as the cost of civilization.”
Ben Dworkin, director of the The Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider and moderator for the Oct. 17 debate, asked the candidates for their opinions on the debt ceiling and the Republicans’ opposition to raising it. He welcomed Beck’s views on what Beck would have done had he been there.
“Most industrialized countries don’t have a debt ceiling, but that also leads them to have a lot of fiscal problems where they spend more money than they should,” Beck answered. “However, I will say with regard to working towards a long-term budget agreement I would support the idea of increasing the debt ceiling on a temporary basis, only on a temporary basis, just to give us enough breathing room so that we would have a negotiated settlement on that. So I’m not an absolutist on it, but I do believe that we have to live within our means.”
Beck said the country has “set too many priorities” and is “spending too much money” in an unsuccessful effort to fund those priorities.
Dworkin asked the candidates their views on the ongoing debate concerning Bush-era tax cuts – particularly those applying to the highest income earners – and where they stand in the argument that allowing those tax cuts to expire would solve “a big chunk” of the deficit federal problem.
“The principle reasons for the imbalance between our income and outgo right now are those tax cuts. They were economically unwise and the data are there to show they didn’t produce the desired results. Continuing them would only dig us deeper into imbalance,” Holt answered. “We have proposed extending tax cuts for the middle class.... The idea now of extending the Bush-era tax cuts for the middle class is something the Republicans say they want [and] the Democrats have proposed, yet we can’t get it done because of the kind of intransigence that the Republican leadership has brought about in the House. We have said, okay, let’s continue to argue about whether we should have a tax cut for the higher income, the top 2 percent of income earners, but let’s go ahead with the tax cut for the middle class.”
“With regard to the Republican leadership, as far as I know, they have supported for the longest period of time comprehensive tax reform that would hopefully increase revenues by changing the form of the tax code,” Beck said in response to Holt. “With regard to the Bush-era tax cuts, I’m not saying I’m going to support or oppose the Bush-era tax cuts because I don’t think that’s the issue. The issue is the fact that we have a tax code that is inefficient and ineffective and needs to be scrapped because it’s basically a conglomeration of special-interest initiatives that are economically inefficient that put us at a competitive disadvantage relative to other industrialized nations. I have talked about a three-point economic plan; one of the points that I’ve talked about is the need for a flat tax, a 15 percent flat tax.”
Noting that, as a result of redistricting following the 2010 census, the City of Trenton is now entirely within the 12th Congressional District, Dworkin asked what can be done to help economically-depressed cities like Trenton.
“We need to pay attention to education. It is the answer to almost every question,” Holt said. “We need to pay attention to education so that the people of Trenton see a way forward economically and in the quality of life. We have to create jobs – best not done indirectly through some trickle-down tax policy; best done directly…”
Beck responded by saying, “I think there’s a limit to what Congress can do to help Trenton primarily because, if you look at the current situation in Trenton, with the local government they are in the middle of a major corruption scandal. There is a real problem in trying to restore stability of the local government. We’ve seen turnover in the police department, we’ve seen Mayor [Tony] Mack being arrested by the FBI…
“We can help Trenton to some degree. I know the Congressman has appropriated a certain amount of funds for police officers to try to help secure the streets of Trenton. The problems is, when you’re running trillion-dollar deficits, that kind of support can’t go on forever,” Beck continued. “Ultimately, Trenton’s problems have to be solved by the people of Trenton because the federal government – unless you are going to have a take-over of the city – there has to be a credible local government that’s going to establish some stability and encourage, give people confidence, to invest with private money. Federal money, government money is not the way to sustain growth and prosperity in Trenton. It’s got to come through private investment… We need to talk to the people of Trenton and say, ‘Look, the federal government has a limit in terms of what it can do to help you. You’ve got to take ownership of your own city, you own government, and fix the problems first. Then we can work together…’”
In response, Holt said, “It seems to me that Mr. Beck’s watchword, his basic theme is, ‘You’re on your own. You’re on your own Trentonians…’ There are things we can do. And I really have to react strongly to this fairly dismissive comment about the COPS program. The [Community Oriented Policing Services] program has been good for this country, it has been good for the urban areas and, yes, it has been good for Trenton. It’s true – the number of layoffs in Trenton far exceeds the number of police who have been hired under the COPS program. We’ve got to do better. But to dismiss that as an unaffordable, unsustainable federal program is to deny Trenton the help that it needs for order and safety.”
“Look at the philosophy you’re preaching – it’s as if the federal government is ultimately responsible for the success of Trenton,” Beck countered. “That’s what I’m hearing as I’m listening to the congressman. And the fact is that’s not the case. That’s not how we organize democracy in this country. The people of Trenton are ultimately accountable and responsible for stabilizing their own government and creating their own prosperity. Federal government can help, state government can help – but it’s help... It’s something the people of Trenton have to address primarily.”
“A growing number of families in urban centers are looking for [school] vouchers as some way to help their child get out of a system that they feel is failing them. Do you believe that the federal government should be supporting vouchers in order to help those parents in a place like Trenton…move their child to a different school?” Dworkin asked.
“We want to encourage public education. There’s some federal support that can be done for that. The problem with vouchers is that it tends to take funds away from those places that need them most. And that hurts the children more than it helps them,” Holt said.
“Not if you’re targeting them to inner city kids who are disadvantaged because they’re in failing schools. So I don’t see how that’s a problem,” Beck interjected. “I think there’s room for experimentation with new accountability models in schools. I’m supporting the governor’s initiatives to move beyond No Child Left Behind… But also I do support the idea of experimenting with vouchers. We can find ways to make that work, particularly for kids who are disadvantaged.”
Holt said he believes there are things that the federal government can do to help Trenton and places like it prosper.
“It is not a matter of ‘you are on your own, you work it out.’ Yes, it costs taxpayer money, but there is such a thing as investment. My opponent and lots of people in Washington are dismissing the idea of investment as wasteful spending. When you put money into America, into education, into infrastructure, it makes us a richer, more prosperous, more productive country. It pays back many times over.”
“Investment is a great idea but the problem is that what we’ve seen, particularly over the last four years as we’ve watched and observed investment as it’s been defined by the administration and supported by my opponent, is investment sometimes tends to be things that aren’t investments,” Beck answered. “Investments from the government perspective can be positive because there are some investments that the private sector will not do, but they can often be wasteful as well.”
Video of the full debate can be found here.