By John De Bellis
Fresh off a bipartisan agreement on the debt crisis, U.S. Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Hunterdon County) spoke at a town hall-style meeting at the Scotch Hill Golf Club on Wednesday night before an often raucous crowd of political activists from across central New Jersey.
Billed as a Tea Party Town Hall hosted by the Scotch Plains-Fanwood Tea Party, half of the gathering of about 100 people was also comprised of liberal activist group MoveOn.org's members and supporters. The Tea Party and MoveOn.org are often at philosophical odds on ways to handle political issues in as much as they are reflective of the Republican and Democratic parties to which they align themselves. In July, members of MoveOn.org picketed outside Lance's Westfield office.
"I want to thank you for being here," Lance said at the start of the town hall meeting. "I think that this proves that whether you are a member of the Tea Party or MoveOn.org, that we are Americans first. Many of the issues, if we just talk through them, will bring greater agreement."
He received a round of applause.
In the hours before the town hall, regional coordinators for MoveOn.org had said that the the organization's members would likely stay outside the clubhouse while Lance presented. On Wednesday evening, however, those demonstrating outside the building ultimately chose to sit-in on the meeting. With members from both the Tea Party and MoveOn.org sandwiched into a single, hot room, the event often proved contentious, marked by regular interruptions as attendees asked questions and Lance attempted to answer.
Lance began the town hall by providing an overview of the debt crisis and subsequent bipartisan Budget Control Act. He later answered a wide assortment of questions from attendees.
"I believe that the critical issue facing this country is the creation of more jobs," Lance said. "Jobs, jobs, jobs."
Lance said that the Budget Control Act cuts government spending more than it increases the government debt ceiling, puts in place spending caps to restrain future spending, advances the cause of a balanced budget amendment, and does it all without tax increases while preventing a national default.
"What we voted on last week was ultimately a compromise," Lance said. He noted that he voted for the Budget Control Act, adding that "66 Republicans voted 'No' and 96 Democrats voted 'No.'"
The congressman then returned to discussing jobs.
"The best way to reduce the federal deficit," he argued, "is to have more Americans working." Lowering the unemployment rate from 9 percent to 6 percent would put more revenue in federal coffers without raising taxes, he said, and it "restores American pride and hope."
Moments after uttering those words, Liesa Krausse, a MoveOn.org member who said she works for a small IT consulting firm and owns a small business, stated that although small businesses are typically considered job creators, they are no longer able to perform that role.
"We're being hammered by health care costs," Krausse said. "This last year, health care costs increased by 25 percent. Every year it's a scramble to find another health care plan and to cut coverage." Those costs, combined with the stagnant economy, have prevented business owners from investing in growth and hiring workers, she argued.
Fred Taylor, a member of the Morristown Tea Party, quickly seized on the jobs discussion by asking Lance whether the federal government should spend revenues to spur job creation. "You stated that the best way to reduce the defect is to create more taxpayers," Taylor said. "What happened to the notion of constitutional government? Most of the money that the federal government spends is on things it's not authorized to spend."
Lance said that most of the activity that is performed by the federal government should, in fact, take place at the state level.
MoveOn.org members also raised concerns about federal spending. "Trillion-dollar wars, sending jobs overseas and not having corporations pay their taxes are all fiscal irresponsibility," member Joe Novik said.
Lance said he agreed. Returning to the theme he used to open the meeting, he urged citizens' groups -- even those with divergent viewpoints -- to work together to ensure government spends money appropriately.