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Congressman Tom Cole

Representing the 4th District of Oklahoma

Lawton Constitution: Cole town hall contentious, but courteous

August 30, 2017
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Lawton Constitution - Mitch Meador

Healthcare rose to the forefront of the town hall U.S. Rep. Tom Cole held here Tuesday.

Oklahoma’s Fourth District congressman was still taking questions well past the two-hour mark. Due to the contentious nature of politics nowadays, six uniformed police officers were on hand to keep the peace. Fortunately, members of the audience confined their expressions of dissent to holding up signs and cards, and in one instance, booing.

Ten of the nearly 100 people present brought cardboard signs saying, “Don’t Take Away Our Health Care — Ever!” which they held up at pertinent points in the discussion. Others held up green cards to show they agreed with what a speaker was saying, or red cards for disagreement.

As is his custom, Cole began by giving his view of current events. Fifteen minutes into his remarks, he caught himself, saying he should have begun with a moment of silence for the people going through the devastating effects of Hurricane Harvey, and called for one.

“The local people, the state people and the federal people are performing really, really well under very difficult circumstances,” Cole said. “This will go on for a long time.”

Cole said he has no doubt the money will be there, both for immediate relief and longterm rebuilding.

“I don’t think you’ll see the bill for this thing until probably October or November, at the minimum ... It’s going to be extremely expensive to rebuild a metropolitan area that has as much damage as Houston has experienced,” he said, predicting a national effort to support what insurance and philanthropy for the hurricane victims provide, because Houston is such a big city and such an important part of the U.S. economy.

Cole said it’s important to make sure adjusters get a really good damage assessment, as that will be important when it comes time to appropriate funds.

During the question-and-answer portion of the town hall, his comments about hurricane relief took a detour when one constituent said he would rather see the money for “The Wall” between U.S. and Mexico go to rebuild Houston. When Cole defended Trump’s border security proposals and said it isn’t a matter of “either/or,” because he believes there will be enough money for both, another local resident questioned how that can be, given the scarcity of resources.

“I just don’t think there’s going to be a big fight over this ... I can’t see it being one or the other,” the congressman said.

Cole said the first seven months of the Trump administration “probably have been the most interesting, controversial, tumultuous opening set of months of any new administration in quite a while.” It’s a very complex situation in Washington, D.C., and if anything it has grown more complicated over the recess this month, he feels.

Active Congress

Cole started with what Congress is doing or failing to do. He said it’s not true that “they aren’t getting anything done up there.”

“Actually, it’s been a pretty active session of Congress. That’s particularly true in the House. The House has passed 270 pieces of legislation. They’ve gotten through its version of ‘Repeal and Replace’ of the Affordable Care Act (but the Senate obviously couldn’t get the votes, he added later). It got through the repeal of Dodd-Frank (a financial regulatory reform act passed in 2010) and replaced it with something different. So as a Congress it’s probably done more in the area of deregulation, frankly, than any Congress in history.

Regulation rollback

“We have something called the Congressional Review Act, which allows a Congress to go back about six months — basically 60 legislative days — into the last administration and undo any regulations that have been passed with a simple majority vote. We’ve never done more than one of those before. In this Congress, the House has passed 15, 14 have passed the Senate and been signed into law.”

Cole predicted these rollbacks will save American taxpayers about $86 billion and will save American businesses and consumers about $20-30 billion a year.

“We also hear that ‘they never work together on anything.’ Well, that’s not true,” said Cole. While conceding that members often clash along party or regional lines, he cited the overhaul of Veterans Affairs (VA) as an example of bipartisan cooperation. He also pointed to “get-tough” laws on human trafficking.

Later on, individuals in the audience took issue with him on deregulation and his assertion that spending on veterans has actually outpaced defense. One woman said she is a disabled veteran whose disability rating is at the high end, and yet she gets only $13 a month for living expenses. Cole defended his position by saying that he can’t speak with regard to the specifics of her case, but overall spending on veterans increased 100 percent during the Bush administration and a like amount under Obama.

No one disagreed with a tougher stance on human trafficking. In fact, one woman voiced her support for it.

Cole said a trillion-dollarplus spending bill also passed “in a pretty bipartisan manner.” It includes big increases in defense spending and border security money that President Trump wanted as well as things Congress wanted, like more money for the National Institute for Health.

ACA repeal efforts

After a quick assessment of why the “Repeal and Replace” effort broke down in the Senate, Cole blasted the Affordable Care Act for being unworkable in the long term.

“There are still serious problems. If you’re in Oklahoma, we’re down to a single provider here. We’re going to have a 69 percent rate hike here. Our hospitals are taking care of people that in 31 other states they get compensation for,” said Cole, adding that rural hospitals are going broke while most of the decisions are being made in Washington, D.C.

The Senate is trying a different approach by bringing in public health commissioners and insurance commissioners from around the country to testify at a hearing on what can be done about skyrocketing prices. Whether such a Senate initiative will pass the House remains to be seen.

Emerging priorities

Four or five things need to be done when Congress comes back from recess in September, said Cole. First, the House needs to finish the appropriations process. All 12 bills needed to fund government are out of committee, four have passed the floor of the House in late July and now it’s time for amendments.

Other priorities include the budget, raising the debt ceiling, tax reform and, toward the end of September, a temporary bill that will continue to fund government for the rest of the year. Most of the decisions will be made in November and December, he predicted.

There will always be complications that nobody could foresee, such as North Korea’s persistent efforts to perfect an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. As a result, the president has had to make some consequential foreign policy decisions. Cole said this is the first time the U.S. has ever gotten China to tell the North Koreans, “if you start something, we won’t be there.”

Cole noted a major decision on Afghanistan and said he thinks the president made the right call to send in more troops, in order to prevent the creation of another Islamic state.

Constituent concerns

Constituents presented a wide range of issues during the town hall. The chairwoman of the Kiowa County Democratic Party asked why an outside ethics committee was disbanded, and Cole provided a rationale that he said was shared by Democrats as well as Republicans. Another woman who runs her own business on the internet asked why he voted to repeal “net neutrality,” and Cole gave his reasons, which had to do with spurring innovation. A local veteran asked why he has to drive to the VA Medical Center in Oklahoma City for a simple test that takes 20 minutes. Over and over, questions about insurance and medical costs came forth.

One woman called for Republicans and Democrats to work together on healthcare “because it’s not a privilege, it’s a moral obligation.”

Cole said his record shows he’s done bipartisan work with Democrats.

“If my friends on the other side have solutions, I’ll be happy to sit down to work with them ... but they have to be things that make sense,” he said.

Online: The Lawton Constitution