BEND, Ore. - (Updating crowd estimate to 3,000, fire officials' comment)
At the end of an intense, extended, nearly two-hour town hall full of emotional exchanges with an overflow crowd of about 3,000 at Bend’s Mountain View High School Thursday evening – with plenty of boos, jeers, bleacher stomping and catcalls, as well as some applause and cheers – perhaps most noteworthy is how the target of all those words and emotion, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., said, at the very end, not goodbye – but a pointed see you next year.
“Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming out,” Walden said as the 7 o’clock hour approached. “We look forward to doing this next year – in Bend.”
That could be a “message received” nod to the critics who staged weekly protests this winter because the nine-term congressman had not held a Bend town hall in over four years (although, as he always notes, he holds one in every county every year across the sprawling Second District.)
Like others around the country, this year’s town halls have been nothing like the sedate, sometimes boring public meetings of the past, as new President Donald Trump has fueled intense reaction and involvement by many.
To their credit, the protesters with their red “disagree” or scattered “RESIST” signs did, for the most part, let Walden give his answers, with plenty of “ssh”ing from others who wanted to hear what he had to say – agree or disagree.
And apparently, Walden didn’t mind the intense disputes much, either.
After one questioner began by saying, “Thank you for coming, Greg” – others praised him being willing to put up with the crowd’s boisterous nature – Walden said, “Good to be here” – and explained why.
“I would rather have this any day of the week, than people who sit on their butts at home and never vote and never participate. So bring it on,” he said, with a wave of his and a cheer.
After all, you don’t spend nearly 20 years in Congress without being derided as a “career politician” but also learning how to take a verbal tongue-lashing from those who sent you there. And with the roiling issues of the day – from the not-done-yet health care reform effort to the emotional immigration arguments – Walden is no doubt used to questions such as: “What kind of values … do you have, in terms of decency, humanity and justice?”
“Thank you for expressing your views, and for being here,” he said. “I always start with deep respect for other opinions, even when we disagree.”
There were times when he did take issue with being drowned out before finishing an answer: “Hold on, hold on – you’re starting to act like Congress here,” he said at one point.
But the congressman, as always, firmly defended his votes and views, no matter what came his way, trying to refute a claim that a vote last month to reverse course on one set of privacy protections put, in the questioner’s words, “our privacy up for sale to the highest bidder.”
“That’s not how it works – let me explain,” he responded, noting that customer agreements with their Internet providers still protect your privacy and data, but not so the so-called “edge providers” like Google.
“I think there should be privacy rights for consumers across the whole Internet ecosystem,” Walden said.
Bend fire officials said the turnout was so large, some weren't allowed in until others left, to keep the crowd to the gym's maximum capacity of 3,000.
The topics went where you’d expect – someone stated that Russia interfered with the presidential election, prompting someone else to shout, “Not true!” while the first citizen urged an independent commission investigation.
Walden replied, “No country, whether it’s Russia or anyone else, should ever be allowed to interfere in our elections, period.” But he also insisted that he’s fine (unlike his critics) with allowing the bipartisan Senate and House intelligence committees to do their investigation.
“They’re best-suited to do it,” he said to some cheers but plenty of boos.
No matter the topic, President Trump words and initial actions were never far from people’s thoughts or questions.
“Please tell us, in detail, how you could vote for and support such a person,” a questioner asked, drawing a response that prompting that plea from Walden for the noisy crowd to not “act like Congress.”
“I would assume that many of you here supported Bernie Sanders,” Walden said. “Our district voted for Donald Trump by 20 points .. I supported him because I felt he was the best choice, and we needed to go a different direction.”
He also drew a long, loud chorus of boos when he defended not supporting a bill to require that Trump make public his tax returns, noting that would take retroactive now, which he deemed unfair.
“Every one of us has a protection of our tax returns,” he said, igniting the roar and one of the night’s chants – “SHAME! SHAME!” and a woman asking, shouldn’t candidates for the nation’s highest office be held to a higher standard?
On the related topic of tax reform, a man who said he was a retired federal tax attorney asked how Congress can “consider any tax proposals generated by the White House” when the lack of tax returns means lawmakers won’t know what conflicts Trump has.
Walden said he hadn’t seen the tax reform proposal being developed privately by the Ways and Means Committee, but added, “I do think we need to change America’s tax code to make it more simple and fair, and create jobs here in America, and bring revenue back here in America, and not have the highest rates of the industrialized world. I don’t think whether Trump revealed his tax returns or not should affect that policy.”
The congressman did say he supports public broadcasting and public funding of the arts, such as the programs that introduce students to the Oregon Shakespearean Festival.
Then there’s Trump’s border wall, and a man who asked why America should spend money on such a costly, unnecessary endeavor. Again, Walden tried to distance himself somewhat from the president, noting that Congress passed bipartisan legislation in 2006 to boost protection and security along the Mexican border, with 700 miles of a fence or wall.”
“I don’t think it makes sense to build a wall from one end of the border to the other,” he said. On the other hand, he added, “I say it at every town hall: A country that does not have control of its borders does not have control of its security. But that can be done using technology, for example. We also need to fix America’s broken immigration system.”
Another hot-button topic, climate change, had Walden saying how he supports moves like more renewable energy, an effective energy grid and more geothermal exploration, among other things.
But that wasn’t enough for his critics, who began chanting “EPA! EPA!” to voice their dismay at the administration’s moves to cut federal environmental rules.
Minutes later, as talk moved to health care, which Walden insists is still a “work in progress” that will help most Americans with better coverage and curb skyrocketing costs, the boos and catcalls resumed, and soon the chant was: “DO YOUR JOB! DO YOUR JOB!”
A white-coated doctor said removing health care from 24 million people is “criminal in a country with resources like the United States of America.” Another audience member, hold up a U.S. flag, said he pays $30,000 a year for health care for his family, “and I’m proud to do so, because I earn money, but that’s not the way it is for everybody, and you’ve got to have it for everybody. And what you’re doing doesn’t give it. America wants health care, for everybody.”
Walden vowed, as he has before, that the reform will keep protections for pre-existing conditions. I never want to go back to the days where you couldn’t get insurance, or you couldn’t afford the insurance you had because you have a pre-existing condition.” He also said he wants to keep the ban on lifetime insurance caps and the provision that allows young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance plans to age 26.
The recent missile strike in Syria prompted a question about whether Congress should have regain more power of oversight of such actions.
“I think there are times the commander in chief should have …” and then some remarks drowned out by boos. He went on to note that President Clinton took similar actions in Kosovo, and that Trump’s action was “targeted, a very clear message not to use sarin gas on the populace.” And he said the president complied with the War Powers Act, notifying Congress “on a timely basis.”
Walden continued to point to ways he’s reached across the aisle, working with Oregon’s Democratic lawmakers on legislation to force the Forest Service to complete a Mt. Hood land exchange. And he noted that TV ads are now running against him, claiming he’s not doing all some Republicans want in repealing Obamacare.
But some in the audience didn’t buy it: “How much money did the NRA give to you?” one shouted.
A promise to work to expand health savings accounts brought a cry of “Nooo!” from some in the crowd, as he supported a woman’s proposal to expand the number of group health insurance pools, so that groups, even churches could form them.
“We’ve got to continue to experiment, and find things that will work,” he said, shouting down the crowd about 90 minutes in.
On food safety, Walden contrasted a peanut company whose owner was imprisoned for actions that lead to a deadly salmonella outbreak to Eastern Oregon onion farmers who would have been put “out of business” under proposed FDA water quality requirements for irrigated onion fields. He said they would have been required to keep the water “at swimming pool quality. It’s impossible to do,” and not necessary to do two “kill steps’ for bacteria that onions undergo, unlike other commodities.
“My job is to get it right,” he said.
Another loud chorus of boos came when Walden said he believes the Keystone pipeline “makes sense."
Gun control deabtes also came up, somewhat inevitably, and Walden shifted into how the 21st Century Cures Act would revise mental health laws, while Congress also works on VA and Department of Defense funding to address the tragically rising rate of veteran suicide, while also working to “beef up funding” for programs to address PTSD” – a statement that draw scattered applause.
And so it went. “You are despicable, Walden!” a man shouted, as the congressman began talking about the funding troubles for Medicaid, mostly paid for from federal coffers.
Toward the end of the session, Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell laid much of the blame for crumbling streets and infrastructure at the feet of Congress, which Walden disputed.
“I’m a city councilor here, and our streets are crumbling, Mr. Walden,” she said, later adding, “I want to know what you are going to do, having reduced funding for highways every year for the last 15 years.”
But Walden said he’s backed federal highway funding each time it’s come up.
Despite talk of the deficit, Campbell said, “We don’t have a wealth problem – we’re the richest country on Earth!”
Walden then brought up a city of Bend specific: “When you all put forward a gas tax proposal for the city of Bend, did it pass or did it fail?” He presumably knew the answer – that last year's proposal was rejected by voters.
“So when the voters in Bend said, should we spend more for transportation in Bend, a gas tax, it went down. So the voters have spoken on that issue.”
Walden said he helped shift federal highway funding to the states to the STIP (surface transportation improvement program) that provides more multi-year funding for planning than the previous six months or a year-to-year basis.
“When the Democrats were in control of the White House, Senate and House, they did not raise the gas tax, even when they had the 60 votes,” he said. “This is the stuff we have to work through. I have supported transportation funding, time and again.”