Congressman Tom McClintock sang along with a tea-fueled choir last Wednesday night at a packed town hall meeting in El Dorado Hills, riffing off audience comments and working free market, anti-regulation and pro-competition themes into every verse.
Those who’ve followed McClintock’s career know that his themes haven’t changed much. They predate the current Tea Party populism by a decade.
When McClintock visited El Dorado Hills in the past, his modest audiences often consisted of polite business people drawn to his anti-tax, pro-business message. These days, the Republican from Granite Bay attracts a much larger crowd that’s far more conservative and a lot crankier.
An estimated 350 unsmiling faces filled the seats and bleachers in the Rolling Hills Middle School multipurpose room.
The Tea Party was out in force, and treated McClintock with messianic reverence. But many in the crowd were like El Dorado Hills resident Ivan Seznech, who said he turned out simply to learn more about what’s going on in Washington from a first hand participant.
With Republicans now a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, McClintock has shifted his role from a no-voting keen observer of a flawed system to an active participant in its repair.
So far this year he has sponsored legislation that would force the U.S. Treasury to pay principal and interest on debt first when the debt ceiling is reached. He’s a leading house opponent of President Barack Obama’s health care bill (“Obamacare”) as well as the president’s 2012 budget, while supporting the a $61 billion budget cut counter measure passed by the house last week.
The house bill cuts all funding for the Americorps program and public broadcasting, while defense spending and veterans programs went virtually unscathed.
The congressman began his El Dorado Hills Town Hall with a history lesson. “Not that many years ago we had double digit unemployment and double digit inflation,” he said. “Remember those long lines at the gas stations? Remember 21.5 percent interest rates?
“Perhaps we don’t remember those vividly because they didn’t last very long. We elected Ronald Reagan, who recognized that government was the problem, not the solution. He reduced the tax and regulatory burdens that were crushing the economy.
“The result was a prolonged period of economic expansion. JFK did the same thing in the 1960s with the same result.”
On Wednesday night McClintock made a point of “giving credit where credit is due,” countering his supporters’ often passionate and sometimes inaccurate vitriol with history lessons, working in mentions of fiscally prudent accomplishments by Democrats in the past to drivehome his message.
“People forget that Bill Clinton actually reduced federal spending by four percent of GDP, and delivered the largest capital gains tax cut in American history,” he said.
The result? “A prolonged period of economic productivity and the only budget surpluses in the last 40 years.”
“We know what works,” he said. “The unfortunate fact is that we’re doing what doesn’t work.”
He hearkened even farther back, to the recession of 1929. “We increased federal spending by 60 percent over the next four years, with steep increases on federal income tax and import taxes,” he said. The result was the Great Depression.
The U.S. economy typically bounces back from a recession in a “U” shaped model, he said. “We’ve only seen two “L” shaped recessions in our lifetime, 1929 and this time.
“Both times we had massive increases in spending with the idea that somehow that would revive the economy. It hasn’t.”
McClintock’s problems with President Obama begin with stimulus package, and extend to the specifics of “Obamacare.”
He credited Obama for taking some action, any action, to address spiraling healthcare costs, unlike his Republican predecessors. “That’s a big reason why they were kicked out of office,” he said.
He made it clear that he won’t sit quietly by and watch Obama and the Democrats throw money at every problem they face. “We began this administration with the single biggest spending bill in the history of the country,” he said.
Stimulus spending recently surpassed the entire cost of the Iraq war, he said, roughly three quarters of a trillion dollars. “And we can all see how well it has worked.”
McClintock boasted that his House of Representatives repealed Obamacare in its entirety within weeks of convening in early January, a move that McClintock said will save $311 billion and 800,000 jobs, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That vote has stalled in the Senate.
Last week McClintock’s Republican led House of Representatives struck the president another blow, rejecting Obama’s proposed $3.7 trillion budget, which included an acknowledged $1.6 trillion deficit, the largest since WWII.
“That comes to about $20,000 for every family of four in the country and it’s all got to be paid back,” said McClintock.”
“No country has ever borrowed, spent and taxed its way to prosperity,” he said. “History is screaming this warning at us.”
The U.S. would now be denied membership in the European Union because of the size of the federal debt, he said. “That’s a terrible milestone.”
In El Dorado Hills McClintock appeared to enjoy his role as the uber-informed, reasonable conservative calming his irascible, Tea Party fueled constituents, some of which had lost jobs or homes.
He measured his responses all night, selectively responding to audience comments, many of which were pre-crafted harangues followed by a gulp of air and “… and what are you going to do about it?”
The first audience questioner thanked McClintock for reducing the deficit and blocking “Obamacare,” then condemned teachers’ unions and school administrators. He called abortion a “primitive method of socioeconomic change,” asked McClintock to “reign in the deceit of the white house regime,” then sat down.
McClintock deftly picked up on the speaker’s early-rant criticism of the school system, then went a more measured rant of his own, recounting the fact that per-student spending has increased three-fold, adjusted for inflation, in a single generation, “with abysmal results.”
“Imagine how (your business) would do if you paid the best and brightest the same as the dullest and laziest, if you couldn’t reward the good ones and couldn’t get rid of the lousy ones. How hard would anyone in that system work? That’s precisely the way we run our public schools.”
He blamed the system’s poor performance on a gradual departure from a management philosophy that empowered teachers and principals.
“There was no one closer to God on earth than a teacher in her classroom.” he said. “She meted out discipline, chose curriculum and determined a teaching methodology suited to the students in her classroom. The principal could hire or fire teachers. All of that has now been pushed aside.
“We have to get the federal and state government out of the classrooms and put the teachers and principals back in charge.”
McClintock defended some of Obama’s foreign policies, but faulted the president for failing to support Iranian dissidents in 2009, when resistance to Iranian President Ahmadinejad was at a peak.
“We had the opportunity to turn the tide against Islamic extremism in the Middle East … and we missed it,” he said. “Ronald Reagan would have stood up, provided moral support to the Iranian resistance, and got them as much behind the scenes material support as possible.”
He also faulted Obama for projecting “a sense of American weakness and fecklessness” in the Middle East.
“Humility is a western virtue,” he said. “In the Middle East it is considered weak and even shameful.”
Rather than rely on Middle Eastern stability, McClintock suggests gaining petroleum independence by developing U.S. shale oil reserves, which he claims dwarf the Middle East oil fields.
El Dorado Hills veterans’ advocate John Cordova thanked McClintock for supporting the defense budget, and suggested a government contract to create the refineries needed to turn U.S. shale and Canadian sand oil into fuel, reminding McClintock that the last U.S. refinery was built in 1976. “We have all this reserve but there’s no way to refine it.”
“Good idea,” said McClintock, “but we don’t need a contract, we just need to get the government out of the way and refineries will spring up all over the place.”
McClintock restated his longstanding support of nuclear power, then outlined recent nuclear technology breakthroughs in surprising detail, insisting that nuclear power is now far safer and more cost effective than any time in the past.
As the chairman of the Water and Power Subcommittee, McClintock is now in a position to influence federal policy on hydro electricity. He promised restoration of “the policies we enjoyed a generation ago.”
His immediate target is the preservation of four hydroelectric plants in the Klamath Valley which are slated for destruction in the name of salmon preservation.
“They currently generate 155 megawatts of “the cleanest and cheapest electricity on the planet,” said McClintock, who quoted hydro costs at about a half cent per kilowatt hour, whereas solar, at the low end, costs 17 cents per kilowatt hour.
He recounted being told about the “catastrophic decline” of the salmon population on the Klamath River, and learning about the fish hatchery. It produces 5 million salmon smolt a year, roughly 17,000 of which return as full grown salmon to spawn annually.
“But they aren’t allowed to count them,” he said.
Taking the dams down will cost a half billion dollars, he said. The plan also tears down the fish hatchery.
The ensuing silence was interrupted by a lone female voice from the back of the audience. “How do we stop it?”
“We stop it through the election process,” said McClintock. “We just did that, and now have a new congress. The election of 2010 is just the first step in changing course. 2012 is just 20 months away.”
McClintock had funds for the dam demolition expressly omitted from the concurrent resolution passed by the House of Representatives last week that will keep the government running during next month’s budget battle.
El Dorado Hills Boy Scout Robert Davis, 12, asked the congressman what it would take to get the Auburn Dam built and how he could help.
“That’s a good place to plunge into politics,” quipped McClintock, who’d spent years and untold political capital on the failed dam project. “Let me know how that works out for you.”
When the laughter died down he recapped well worn dam statistics he’s been citing since his days on the Senate floor in Sacramento: 400 year flood protection, 2.3 million acre feet of water storage, 800 megawatts of cheap hydro electricity and vast recreation opportunities.
“The only question,” he said, “is whether we build it now or after Sacramento is inundated by a massive flood.”
As chairman of water and power, he promised to restore an apolitical cost benefit analysis to all projects brought before the committee.
“Then we need to make sure that the beneficiary pays for the benefits of these water and power projects,” he said, citing billion-dollar Southern California water recycling projects that produce reclaimed water at absurdly high costs, up to $10,000 per acre foot. “They get the benefit,” he said. “We have to pay.”
Looking around the packed room McClintock acknowledged his loyal Tea Party constituents. “That’s where we are, where we’re heading, and why we’re seeing huge turnouts like this all across this district, and all across the country,” he said. “American people have simply had enough.”