U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler fielded questions Saturday from nearly 50 constituents who turned out at the congresswoman’s community coffee event at Juliano’s Pizzeria in east Vancouver.
Constituents’ questions touched on energy costs, the national deficit, the Columbia River Crossing, lack of bipartisanship in Congress and lobbyist power.
Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, opened the discussion by outlining her philosophy on legislation in light of still-high unemployment.
“Everything I do in Congress … I put through the prism: Is it going to grow jobs in my district?” she said.
Vancouver resident James Chesky asked the congresswoman whether it made sense to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas, given that much of the crude would be exported abroad after being refined in that southern state. Local gas prices now exceed $4 per gallon.
“Why are we putting environment at risk so somebody can take our oil and ship it worldwide?” Chesky asked. “It’s only to our detriment, it raises (fuel) prices (at home) and not to our advantage.”
Herrera Beutler said she hasn’t been involved in committee discussions about the pipeline but supports the project.
“There is a feeling it’s going to be a job creator for those areas (in the south),” she said. Although there are refineries between Canada and Texas, much of the nation’s refining capacity has diminished since the 1970s. Although the project isn’t in the Pacific Northwest, it could affect fuel prices nationwide.
“That’s where the federal challenge is,” she said.
The project has received bipartisan support; President Obama has expressed support for the southern segment of the pipeline between Cushing, Okla., and Texas. In the past, she said, his administration had blocked the pipeline project.
On the local front, the congresswoman took heat for a recent mail survey of constituents on whether they support a vote on construction of the $3.5 billion Columbia River Crossing and if they wanted light rail as part of the project. The survey cost about $31,500 in taxpayer money.
Vancouver resident Tom Scharf said the survey was unscientific, so the results were useless.
“For less money, you could have conducted a real scientific poll,” Scharf said. “Why didn’t you?”
Herrera Beutler acknowledged survey results are unscientific. She said she used the survey as a way to hear from her constituents.
“I sent it out believing it was the right thing to do, and I would do it again today,” she said.
Health costs, coverage
Two constituents shared their concerns about health insurance.
Vancouver resident Dan Ferguson asked the congresswoman to work for policy that would rein in the cost of health insurance.
Ferguson said his employer-provided retirement insurance premium recently went up by $100 per month.
“It’s getting ridiculous,” Ferguson said. “When you are on a fixed income and you’re told this year it’s going to cost $100 more per month, you cut out the movies. Then, you cut out going out to dinner. After that, what do you cut?”
Vancouver resident Lenore Ackers complained about a policy that allows employers with certain convictions to deny coverage for certain medical procedures, such as blood transfusions.
Herrera Beutler said she supports “the right of conscience” when it comes to employer-provided insurance.
“Right now, employers can decide not to offer health insurance at all,” she said.
Vancouver resident Bob Synoground scolded Congress for its lack of cooperation.
“Partisan politics are killing the U.S.,” he said. “I have a hard time believing every Republican is right, and every Democrat is wrong.”
The congresswoman said she doesn’t agree with all of her party’s positions and has taken a stand on issues she has disagreed with. She also said she has worked on bipartisan legislation, including a bill that postponed for one year a requirement to permit all logging roads as chemical industrial sites.
Saturday was the 19th community coffee Herrera Beutler has held since taking office in 2011. She uses the gatherings to meet constituents, update them on legislation she’s working on, hear concerns and answer questions.
Telephone alerts went out Friday to 10,400 constituents who live near the pizzeria, but nobody was barred from attending.
Vancouver resident J.C. Hinton thanked the congresswoman for communicating closely with her constituents, in the tradition of her predecessor, Democrat Brian Baird.
“You show a great deal of commonality, approaching things with common sense. You also both listen to your constituents, and we appreciate both of you.”