Congressman calling out for questions
FARGO — Ask U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer where he’s been this week, and Washington, D.C., might be the last place on his list.
This year, he’s done seven or eight town hall question-and-answer sessions that are open to the public — the latest in Fargo on Wednesday morning. He’s held them in basically every major city in the state. He also takes calls from the public on his weekly one-hour radio show, which can be heard statewide, including Fargo’s AM 1100 The Flag.
With the wide-open town halls and the regular stints on radio, Cramer is by far the member of Congress in North Dakota most open to taking public questions.
At Wednesday’s town hall at Babb’s Coffee House in downtown Fargo, Cramer said he enjoys being in the U.S. House because he’s always two years away from an election, which requires him to stay close to the people.
“It’s a great way to solve a lot of problems, is to sit down and have coffee,” Cramer said. “Frankly, there’s not enough of that going on in Washington these days. Everybody picks their coffee up on their way to something.”
Cramer told The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead’s editorial board Wednesday afternoon that he has not yet decided if he will run for re-election next year, but he said he has been raising money. He said he’ll make a decision after the first of the year.
Taking on questions
It’s not unusual that Cramer has held more town halls than either Sens. Heidi Heitkamp or John Hoeven, said Barbara Headrick, chairwoman of the political science department at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
Senators tend to do it less, Headrick said, because they usually have a larger constituency. But in North Dakota, the House and Senate members have the same constituency, she noted, because Cramer serves the state at-large.
Do town halls actually matter to the voters? Headrick said it’s tough to say.
“I know the elected officials who do it believe it’s important for them to do it,” she said, “but I don’t know that there’s any real evidence that it makes a difference.”
The itch to do town halls varies from politician to politician, Headrick said. Q&A’s today take place in actual town halls as well as virtual ones or over the phone, she said.
“It really is what the elected official is comfortable with and what they think they would be good doing,” Headrick said, “and where they think they can honestly reach constituents as opposed to just people organized to show up.”
That last part is key, as Headrick pointed to a rash of volatile town halls held after the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, passed in 2010, when organized groups showed up just to “set the world on fire,” Headrick said with a laugh.
Talking about benefits
That could scare some politicians away from doing more town halls, but Cramer didn’t shy away from tough questions Wednesday morning, although he may not have always provided suitable answers for some.
Take Fargo resident Mara Solberg, who stared at Cramer hard when she asked him Wednesday morning if he’s ever used Social Security as a “bargaining chip.”
Solberg said after the event that she thinks he has and is concerned about those who rely 100 percent on Social Security.
“They would like someone in Congress who thinks of them and takes care of them,” she said.
In his response, Cramer said it’s important for Congress to talk about reforming Social Security, even though it’s a touchy subject, and one that often gets elected officials booted from office, Cramer said.
He said small fixes need to be made to the program now — like slowly raising the retirement age over five or six years — to save it from a major future crisis.
“We are not talking about current Social Security recipients like my parents,” Cramer said. “But if we don’t deal with the issue going forward, we will wake up one day and the only solution will be a 25 percent cut in benefits. That we cannot do. That is irresponsible.”
Backing off on repeal
Another audience member, Melissa Paulik, said she is self-employed and self-insured, but because of the Affordable Care Act, she’ll soon be paying more for her insurance plan.
“They listed a list of things that I’m going to have to add that I don’t want and I don’t need,” Paulik said.
Cramer said he is one of 15 co-sponsors of a bill that would make a broken promise President Barack Obama once made into a reality – that despite the health care overhaul, people can keep their current health insurance plan if they want to.
“We just have to keep grinding it out and fighting it back and trying to fix it,” Cramer said. “We’re not going to repeal it (Obamacare). I think that’s pretty clear, until such time that there’s a real big seat change in elections.”
Another audience member asked Cramer how he could support lowering the country’s debt, while also backing recent legislation that delays a solvency plan for the National Flood Insurance Program, which relies heavily on subsidies.
Cramer said last year’s flood insurance overhaul had “unintended consequences” that would mean dramatic premium increases for Fargo homeowners in the floodplain. He wants to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on figuring out a better way to make the program stable.
Cramer, along with Hoeven and Heitkamp, has supported legislation to delay flood insurance premium increases for four years until FEMA can finish an affordability study.