Every election year since 2006, Temple Beth Hillel Beth El’s Israel Advocacy Committee, Men’s Club and Sisterhood invite the Congressional Candidates for Pennsylvania’s 6th district to speak to the community, and this year was no exception. Incumbant Republican Congressman Jim Gerlach was followed by his Democratic challenger Dr. Manan Trivedi as they both addressed the crowd and took questions on a wide range of issues.
As was the case in the first debate between Gerlach and Trivedi, there was a small incident before the beginning of the event as the Gerlach campaign asked that the event not be filmed, and all recording equipment was removed. The second debate was televised and can be seen on the PCN website. This forum was not a debate format as the candidates appeared sequentially.
Both candidates spoke passionately of their support for the Jewish State. As a decorated veteran Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy, Trivedi said
“I was ready to die for Israel because that is what allies do for each other.”
Both candidates were pessimistic about the current peace negotiations. Gerlach said he “saw no signs of a breakthrough there”. Trivedi blamed the Palestinian leadership “We need someone who can come to the negotiating table without preconditions.” Gerlach cited “Gaza’s extreme poverty and lack of educational opportunities which fosters hatred of Israel.” He added that the neighboring Arab countries could do something about the situation in Gaza but they are not interested.
More after the jump.
Trivedi cautioned that we should let Israel take the lead in the peace process. The United States he said “can facilitate, but should not take over” or “draw borderlines”, adding that he was “still waiting for a Palestinian Authority which can deliver on its promises.”
Trivedi spoke of his Indian heritage which gives him reason to be vigilant yet optimistic. His family and friends who were affected by the terrorist attack last year in Mumbai remind him of the danger posed by terrorist groups like al Qaeda and Hamas who Trivedi insisted we “cannot negotiate with”. Yet he also recalled lessons from his parents’ hometown in India. Ahmedabad was a city plagued by rioting between its Hindi and Muslim communities following the independence and partition of India in 1947, but the Indian government seeded economic development, and once everyone was more secure financially, suddenly they were less concerned with religious differences with their neighbors.
Gerlach responded to a hypothetical situation proposed by Steve Feldman (Director of the ZOA in Philadelphia) in which the administration were to impose a particular peace proposal by a fixed deadline. “Israel needs to make its own determination of what is a good agreement that it can sign on to. If Obama moves beyond that we can use the appropriations process – the power of the purse.”
“There is strong bipartisan support for the State of Israel, and I imagine this will continue.”
Both candidates praised the recently passed Iran sanctions. Gerlach was disappointed that Obama has not yet employed the full range of sanctions available. Trivedi concurred. He saw the Iranian sanctions were having a real effect, but he said we need to implement all of the available the sanctions as quickly as possible since “centrifuges do not wait for negotiations.” A questioner asked how he would respond to military action by Israel and Iran. Trivedi said all options have to be on the table including the military option, adding that
“The only thing worse than the military option is a nuclear Iran.”
The former Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev recently warned that winning a war in Afghanistan is impossible. Gerlach was asked how he would vote on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Gerlach said “I would have to vote ‘no’ because I want to hear from General [David] Petraeus” who is reviewing the United States’ strategy in the region. Gerlach doubted whether Hamid Karzai’s government could stand long without our support.
Trivedi disagreed with Obama’s “surge” of 30,000 additional troops in Afghanistan. “I do not think they will cure the ills of Afghanistan.” Trivedi added that he does not trust the Karzai government, and he lamented Obama’s failure to address the opium problem in his “surge speech” since the opium drug trade is endemic to many of the problems in Afghanistan and has corrupted the Karzai administration. Trivedi observed from his experience in Iraq:
“The Military has smart power: nurses, engineers, …
“We can facilitate nation building but we can not impose democracy. It has to well up from within.”
Party Loyalty and Extremism
Both candidates tried to distance themselves from the leadership of their parties.
Manan Trivedi said he did not support Obama’s support of Human Rights initiatives in Israel, applying the Nuclear Non-proliferation ban to Israel or Biden’s insistence of a housing freeze in Jerusalem. Trivedi criticized the implementation of the stimulus bill, disagreed with the surge in Afghanistan and felt that the health reform bill did not address costs.
I will take a good idea whether it comes from a tea party supporter or a left-winger or anything in between. We need a new breed of leaders who have no political chips to cash in.
Matt Hirsch asked Gerlach if there were any issues on which he disagreed with Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner. He cited several votes where he opposed the Bush administration: Overriding Bush’s veto of S-CHIP and supporting stem cell research. In fact, during Gerlach’s first three terms he built a moderate record by voting strategically: voting with his party when his vote was needed and voting with his moderate district when it was not. In this Congress, the Republicans have insisted of party discipline in order to avoid giving a hint of bipartisanship to legislation passed by the Democrats. Accordingly, the Philadelphia Jewish Voice followed up and asked for a more recent example where Gerlach opposed his leadership in the last two years. Gerlach said he supported his leadership on all of the major pieces of legislation: namely in opposing the stimulus package, health-insurance reform and cap-and-trade energy policy. Indeed Gerlach has been much more consistent lately in voting with his leadership though he did vote last July to extend unemployment benefits opposed by the Republican leadership.
Gerlach was also asked to comment on the impact of the tea party movement. Gerlach cited several local tea party groups who he said were “very engaged”. He praised them for “stepping up as citizens” and said “this is a good thing”.
Neither candidate eluded to alleged excesses in the tea party such as racism, rejection of principals such as civil rights or the Separation of Church and State, violence against Lauren Valle in Tennessee and the “citizens arrest” of a reporter in Alaska.
The 2001 and 2003 Bush taxes cuts expire at the end of this year. Unless Congress takes action during the lame-duck session or takes retroactive action next year, tax rates will revert to the levels they were at during the Reagan and Clinton administrations. For the richest Americans this would raise their marginal tax rate from 35.0% to 39.6%.
Jim Gerlach said that he along with the entire Republican caucus and “about 50 moderate Democrats” in the House of Representatives favor making the Bush tax cuts permanent. He doubted whether Pelosi would have the political strength to address this issue during the lame-duck session following the upcoming mid-term election. Gerlach also wanted to address the Alternative Minimum Tax which was never indexed and is catching more and more middle-class Americans.
Gerlach’s campaign was distributing “fact sheets” at the synagogue claiming that “Manan Trivedi opposes extending tax relief which will result in the largest tax increase in American history, roughly $2,000 per Pennsylvania family,” but in reality Trivedi “supports extending tax cuts for all but the über-wealthy.” Trevedi said we needed to return to the old rates only for the portion of taxable income exceeding $250,000 per year. Keeping those tax breaks would cost Americans 700 billion dollars which Trivedi said “we cannot afford.” Economists have observed that tax breaks focused on the richest 2% of Americans “will not stimulate the economy” since “we have a demand side problem not a supply side problem.”
The Federal Budget for the new fiscal year has not yet been passed so the government is acting under a Continuing Resolution until December 3. Gerlach doubted the new budget would be passed in the lame-duck session but was confident that another Continuing Resolution would be passed to avoid a government shutdown before the new Congress could act on the budget in January.
Gerlach said “the current deficit spending is 20% of gross domestic production whereas historical it has been around 18 to 19%.” In reality, the deficit was 9.91% at the end of last year and it will grow to 10.64% based on the proposed budget which is less than the figure Jim Gerlach cited but still well above deficits seen since the end of World War II.
To solve this problem, Gerlach intends to draw on his experience as a State legislator where the budget had to be balanced. “Only the Federal government does not have a balanced budget requirement”. Calling the current situation “unsustainable”, Gerlach called for a Balanced Budget Amendment to the United States Constitution with exception in times of war or other national emergency similar to that proposed in during the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration. Similar amendments failed to pass the House by the required two-thirds majority in 1982, 1997 and 2005. Once the amendment passes Congress, it would then have to be ratified by 38 states before going into effect.
Gerlach was asked specifically what he would cut in order to balance the budget since entitlements, the military and interest make up 84% of the budget. Gerlach said that all areas of spending have to be under consideration including Medicare and Social Security. Gerlach also pledged to look at defense spending as well.
Manan Trivedi countered that “we need to cut spending, but we need to do it with a surgical knife, not a sledgehammer.”
From Trivedi’s experience in the military, he agrees with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that we need to be more efficient and eliminate unneeded weapon systems. In Iraq, Trivedi saw contractors paid five times more to do half of the work of an enlisted serviceman.
Trivedi called Washington DC an “evidence-free zone” suggesting that by observation we can fund best-practices and drive costs down for a wide range of government programs.
Trivedi sees getting the economy back on track as critical to reestablishing fiscal discipline. Trivedi’s jobs plan will eliminate the 260 billion dollar loophole for companies that ship job oversees. His jobs plan features tax incentives for small businesses which he called “the motor of our economy.”
Trivedi emphasized stimulating sectors of the economy which have a ripple effect and will provide long-term benefits for the economy. One example was the clean energy economy. Trivedi said we should work on smart grid, wind turbine and solar power technologies. “We are not doing the things the Chinese are doing, and they are going to be the leaders” in green technology and not us if we do not step up to the plate. Similarly, Trivedi wants to invest in infrastructure such as tunnels, roads and light rail here in the Sixth Congressional District and around the country in order to provide jobs right now and continue to create jobs in the future.
Gerlach was asked if he would defund the Health-Insurance Reform which he voted against. He said he favored repealing the bill and replacing it with a new one without the “onerous new taxes.” (Gerlach did not explain how he would overcome the anticipated Presidential veto in order to repeal the bill.) Gerlach emphasized buying insurance across state-lines and working on tort reform as a way to drive down costs. He would also work to slow down and delay implementation of certain provision of the Health-Insurance Reform Bill. He did not expect an immediate solution, and expects this to remain an issue for next several administrations.
Trivedi looked at ease on the subject of Health Care and spoke with expertise not only as a battalion surgeon and as a primary care physician, but also as an expert on Health Policy. He received a Masters degree from UCLA in Health Policy and went on to serve as health policy advisor to the Navy Surgeon General and was an Assistant Professor of Medicine at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.
Gerlach’s handout claimed Trivedi supported a “socialized single-payer medicine scheme.” However, Trivedi denied the allegation.
Trivedi said the Health-Insurance Reform bill was not perfect: it did not address costs and it was too long, but he would have voted for it because it was a step in the right direction. He compared it to other pieces of landmark legislation (such as civil rights legislation which still left many people unable to vote). These bills aspire to historic change but need to be improved over time.
Trivedi rejected repealing the bill as a step in the wrong direction.
“It would cost millions of dollars when we need to balance the budget. This would reintroduce insurance companies into the doctor-patient relationship. This would eliminate guaranteed coverage for those with preexisting conditions.”
Trivedi gave one of his own patients as an example who was unable to obtain coverage even though she was cancer-free because her medical files mentioned the word “cancer”.
To contain costs, Trivedi said we need evidence-based health policy to help drive down costs since “30% of medical treatment makes no difference in outcomes.”
Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Rabbi Neil Cooper asked Manan Trivedi about coverage for mental health. Trivedi answered that “mental health is part and parcel of health care.” He lamented that mental health care has been unfairly stigmatized for generations and as a result post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had not been treated as pro-actively as it should. During his work with the Navy’s Surgeon General, Trivedi drew on his own experience with combat medicine to become one of the early researchers to investigate the unique mental health issues affecting our troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Israel Action Committee chairman Lee Bender concluded the event by urging everyone to get out and vote next Tuesday.