9th Congressional District candidates field questions at Indiana forum
The three Republican candidates vying to represent Pennsylvania's 9th Congressional District promoted their respective conservative credentials at a recent public forum sponsored in Indiana by the Indiana Armstrong Patriots.
For more than an hour on the evening of April 24, incumbent Congressman Bill Shuster and challengers Art Halvorson and Travis Schooley took turns fielding questions submitted by the public and screened by a panel of local Republicans. Held in the Kovalchick Complex's Toretti Auditorium, the forum was the first of four proposed joint appearances by the GOP hopefuls before the May 20 primary election. The next is a debate planned for 6 p.m. May 2 at Penn State Altoona.
A recurrent theme in Indiana for Halvorson, and to some extent Schooley, was an effort to label Shuster as part of a dysfunctional Congress that each argued has fallen short in pursuing such conservative goals as blocking the Affordable Care Act health care reforms and cutting the deficit and the size of the federal government.
Shuster touted his 12 years of experience in the nation's capital as well as addressing local issues in communities across the sprawling district that stretches over 12 counties — including all of Indiana County.
Shuster also defended his voting record as a U.S. representative and pointed to the Democrat-controlled Senate as the real stumbling block to advancing a conservative agenda on a national level.
“This election, (Republicans) have an opportunity to take back the United States Senate, and some of that good legislation that we've passed out of the House will be able to be taken up in the Senate,” Shuster said.
However, Pennsylvania voters won't have a direct impact on the political balance in the Senate in the coming year; neither of the state's two senators is currently facing re-election.
Each candidate was asked to describe what qualities set him apart from his opponents.
Halvorson, who resides in Manns Choice, Bedford County, is a commercial developer and also runs a farm. He cited leadership and problem-solving skills he gained during 29 years of military service, including planning duties with the Coast Guard in Washington, D.C. “I know how to bring people together, reach an agreement and get something done,” he said.
Halvorson pledged to seek no more than three two-year terms in Congress. With hard work, “You should be burning yourself out in six years,” he said.
Schooley, 39, of Waynesboro, Franklin County, described himself as a working man. He noted he currently raises livestock but also was involved in municipal management and worked for a civil engineering firm. Through dealing with governmental paperwork for projects, he suggested, “I understand the local issues more than either of these other candidates.” An Army veteran, Schooley indicated he also has an insight into international defense matters through work in intelligence analysis.
Shuster, 53, of Hollidaysburg, Blair County, chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and serves on the House Armed Services Committee. He noted that he has experience as a small businessman, having employed between 30 and 40 people when he operated a car dealership.
Shuster presented himself as the candidate most in touch with local communities while working to address concerns across the 9th District.
“I've traveled this district,” he said. “I have a broad knowledge of the district and the ability to connect with the people,”
While all candidates said they want to see cuts in federal spending, in response to a question about the national debt, Halvorson and Schooley both faulted Shuster for joining with other Republicans, relenting and agreeing to an increase in the debt ceiling.
“I've only voted for the debt ceiling when I saw that there were cuts to the budget” or the ability to control spending, Shuster responded, adding, “At the end of the day, we've got to pay our bills.”
Shuster said he believes reforming the Social Security and Medicare programs is necessary to gain control of the national deficit, but he stressed that any changes should not affect those already receiving benefits through the programs.
“If you don't reform those entitlements. we'll never get to the core of it,” he said.
The three candidates expressed similar stances regarding the federal government's involvement in education — that it should be limited or eliminated.
Schooley said military spending is one area of the federal budget he'd be reluctant to cut, citing the need for a strong national defense.
Shuster said he believes cuts can be made in some areas of the defense budget without compromising national security. But, “Never cut into the muscle,” he said.
He said there is need for rethinking Department of Defense purchasing procedures, to encourage consideration of innovative offerings from small and medium-sized businesses.
Halvorson observed that defense spending, as with any other appropriation, is susceptible to corruption, with members of Congress vying for money to fund pet projects.
Still, he said, “There are cuts that can be made. There is fat.” He suggested that the many billions of dollars budgeted to provide medical care for military service members and veterans could be reduced by switching to a less costly patient-centered model.
Halvorson and Shuster argued about whether Shuster and fellow Republicans in Congress did enough to try to derail the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. There was also a dispute about who first went public with ideas for alternative options for Americans to obtain medical coverage.
Still, Shuster, Halvorson and Schooley all voiced similar opinions — that Obamacare should be repealed and that individual choice should be the norm in obtaining a medical plan.
Schooley said he is “in favor of a free market alternative that is individual-based and rewards the individual for doing the good shopping for their health care.” He added, “I'm not sure how to do it. I guess no one else is either.”
Shuster said he also supports tort reform as a way to tackle excessive costs in medical care. With such reform, he said, “Doctors would stop having to do tests... to cover themselves if they get sued by somebody.”
There was little common ground between the incumbent candidate and the challengers on the topic of federal transportation funding.
Schooley and Halvorson argued that, with an interstate highway system long in place, the United States government has no further business involving itself in transportation matters.
The two challengers cited transportation as one of the areas of the federal budget that has been particularly troubled by overspending.
Schooley charged that Congress is “spending too much in the transportation realm, just like every other department.”
“Transportation is one of the few things the federal government should be involved in,” Shuster countered.
He argued that the nation's interstate highway system was developed following World War II, not simply to provide for national defense, but also to “propel our economy, and it has done just that.”
In other areas, the candidates seemed to agree that the federal government can best promote economic recovery and growth by getting out of the way of private businesses.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or email@example.com.