I hope to stand firm enough to not go backward, and yet not go forward fast enough to wreck the country’s cause.—Abraham Lincoln
FRANKFORT—At 2 pm Friday afternoon a small group gathered around the congressman from Michigan’s 1st District, Dr. Dan Benishek. Benishek was to have gone on a two-day snowmobile tour with 2nd District rep Bill Huizenga, but the foggy wet weather did not permit. After his stop in Frankfort he was heading to the Sleeping Bear Dunes, his aide said, and the aide pointed out that Benishek had two days before reintroduced a bill to add 32,000 acres to the Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore.
Over coffee in the dining nook of the bar at the Sleeping Bear Inn, Benishek took time to discuss the final days of the 112th Congress and the prospects for consensus-building among House Republicans in the coming weeks and months. This stopoff opportunity was brought to us by Adrian Poulisse, the new chair of the Benzie County Republican Party.
On his fiscal cliff vote to extend the Bush tax cuts to 99% of Americans, for which he had drawn the ire of some of his fellow Republicans, Benishek said he couldn’t feature looking back at missing an opportunity to permanently cut taxes for that many Americans. “How could I run for re-election having voted against the largest tax cut in American history?”
He also mentioned wanting to avoid a 27% cut to doctors’ compensation through Medicaid that would have occurred if we had gone over the cliff, and the Farm Bill, which needed to be passed to avoid the so-called Milk Cliff—the threat by dairy farmers to hike the price of milk up to $8 a gallon if subsidies and drought relief did not come through. The spending cuts portion of the bill—or lack thereof—was indeed problematic, and this was Benishek’s major focus during this meeting.
Pointing out that the National Debt is equal to 42 cents on the dollar, and that the cost of servicing that debt amounts to 7% of monthly revenue, Benishek said he didn’t understand why President Obama couldn’t find a way to cut 7% and cover that expense. Benishek said his office has cut its expenses by 11% in the past two years. Servicing the debt alone is the one of the top five greatest federal expenses, Benishek said.
A couple of members of the public expressed frustration with Speaker John Boehner and the House Republicans for what they saw as a failure to unite on this issue and send a clear message to both the public and the White House. Benishek said Boehner tries to lead by consensus, in contrast to the strong-arm style of Nancy Pelosi, and had not managed to gather the support of enough House Republicans—218 of the 233—to develop a “Plan B” in response to the bill passed to them by the Senate at 2 am on January 1.
Benishek said that Boehner hasn’t used committee assignments as a “carrot and stick” to compel votes from members. Benishek said he was ranked 172 in the House for voting with leadership, meaning 171 Republicans voted more often with the party line than he did, and he still got the committee assignments he asked for.
One woman present said she had been pleased to learn Benishek had signed on to the Fair Tax proposal, an across-the-board elimination of income taxes in favor of a point-of-purchase consumption tax.
A couple of people expressed concern about Republicans’ commitment to “stand and fight” for voters and the constitution. Benishek said Republicans had a messaging problem, and that for some reason they hadn’t been able to convey the severity of the debt crisis; the Democrats had been able to convince the public that spending and the accumulation of debt could go on as long as taxes on the wealthy would increase. “People are getting their information in 30 second soundbites,” he said. “It’s up to us to communicate to the people.”
Which is all the harder, Benishek said, when House Republicans were having such a problem reaching consensus. “We have to stand firm,” he said, ” and make it clear we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling without cuts. We have to stand up through the onslaught of bad publicity. In a couple of weeks we have to find a way.”
Just before Benishek had to leave, a brief discussion of the low water situation in the Betsie Bay occurred. Benishek said he had been “struggling” with the problem for the past two years. “I’ve got the most shoreline of any district in the country,” he said. “Some people think the problem is the [outflow from] the St. Clair River. Some people think it’s the drain out of Chicago. Some say evaporation or lack of rain. The Army Corps blames lack of rainfall and says it’s cyclical, and they don’t want to deal with the St. Clair River.”
Benishek said he intended to seek money from the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, and that he had been working with a congressman from Louisiana on trying to get the fund’s $6 billion to actually be used for Harbor Maintenance. Asked what it was currently being used for, Benishek was vague. “It’s been appropriated for other things. We’re trying to get more of it directed to harbor maintenance.”—Emily Votruba