Are you better off than you were two years ago?
That’s the question Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-Buncombe, asked voters at the outset of his first debate with Democratic challenger David Wilson Brown on Oct. 23 at Highland Brewing Company. The debate was hosted by the Council of Independent Business Owners.
“I think the final answer for our economy writ large is people are better off,” McHenry said, “with rising wages, the economy better off than it was two years ago, and I think it’s the result of a lot of different things.” Tax and regulatory relief have played a big part in achieving this, he said.
In his opening remarks, Brown ran through a list of his policy priorities, pointing to the need for guaranteed health care for all Americans, living wage requirements for businesses, affordable educational opportunities, updated infrastructure — including expanded broadband access to rural areas — and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy.
“The president is nearly right,” Brown said. “We don’t need to put America first, we need to put Americans first.”
Brown and McHenry answered questions about two Trump Administration economic policy actions: the package of tax cuts signed into law in late 2017 and the tariffs the president has imposed on products from foreign countries.
Brown said the vast majority of the cuts imposed by the Republican tax bill went to large corporations and the wealthy. “It did not make a difference to the middle class,” he said. “It’s a small amount.” Tax cuts for individuals are set to expire within a matter of years; in recent months, Republicans have attempted to make those cuts permanent.
According to the Washington Post, House Republicans passed a bill to that end in September. At the time, however, the Senate indicated that it had no intention of considering the bill.
Brown said investments need to be made in the middle class, not the upper class. “The trickle down doesn’t work,” he said. “[The wealthy] offshore their money, they buy yachts from Europe, they’re not keeping it in our economy.”
The key to a robust economy, Brown said, is decreasing taxes for the middle class, which leads to more spending on goods and services.
McHenry said he would vote to retain the recently instituted tax measures. “I think they’re having a fantastic and powerful impact for working families, for small businesses and for job growth and wage growth,” he said. “That’s borne out, not from my opinion, but through the economic statistics we’ve seen.” The median family of four in Western North Carolina will receive a $1,800 tax cut this year, McHenry said, which he said represents a 40 percent reduction in what that family will owe the federal government. Large businesses also can now stay in the United States rather than move out of the country or accept a buyout from a foreign competitor to get a better tax rate.
Responding to a question about tariffs, McHenry noted that textile and furniture industry jobs once located in Western North Carolina have moved to Mexico and Asia. “We have lost a significant number of jobs in Western North Carolina over the last 30 years because of bad trade agreements,” McHenry said. The president’s renegotiation of NAFTA represents progress, he said. “But the real issue now is for us to readdress … our economic relationship with China.”
While distancing himself from Trump’s spats with European countries, McHenry said he believes the administration’s focus on China is warranted.
“They have a really different approach and have a focused agenda to strengthen their economy at our expense,” McHenry said. “They need to open up their economy just as we previously opened up ours.”
Brown said Trump’s tariffs have been disastrous and have increased the prices American consumers pay.
President Donald Trump, Brown said, simply doesn’t understand basic economics. “These are things that are going to hurt the bottom line for our people and for our businesses,” he said, citing the impact of retaliatory tariffs from China on soybean farmers.
“Our farmers are hurt,” he said. “How long is this going to go on and how long are we going to have to as taxpayers pocket this bill for these bad trade deals from someone who doesn’t understand?”
Brown called The Trump Administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families immoral. However, there should be a process to remove immigrants who come to the country illegally, he said.
Brown, who works as an IT consultant, said it’s misleading for Republicans to argue that illegal immigrants are stealing jobs from American citizens. “The issue is not that immigrants are causing us to lose jobs,” he said. “What we’re losing jobs to is corporate greed sending our jobs overseas and automation.”
Automation will result in the loss of 73 million jobs in the U.S. by 2030, Brown said. Whole sectors of the economy will disappear, Brown said, citing predictions that there will be no human truck drivers in a decade. “We have to prepare for that day,” he said. So far, he hasn’t heard any suggestions from the other side of the political aisle about how to plan for this future.
Brown said he supports spending more to help stabilize the countries from which migrants are coming to the U.S. When conditions there improve, he said, those citizens won’t feel compelled to enter this country for a new start.
“Nobody wants to leave their homelands, nobody wants to carry their kids across the border and struggle and risk their lives to come to a place,” he said. “They’re coming here because we’re an amazing ideal.”
Ultimately, Brown said he supports more opportunities for legal immigration.
McHenry pointed to two recent decisions to illustrate his position on immigration: his support for measures fixing issues with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program and a vote in favor of appropriating money for the Trump border wall.
The U.S. has a porous Southern border, McHenry said. “That needs to be fixed,” he said. “I think we have to look at it in a comprehensive way. A physical perimeter is certainly part of it, but also fixing the laws surrounding asylum … as well as ensuring that there’s economic growth and opportunity for those individuals to stay in their countries.”
McHenry said the U.S. also needs to clean up the process by which migrants come to the country legally. “We’ve a done horrible job about this,” he said. There has been a bipartisan failure, he said, to fix and enforce immigration laws. “I have voted consistently to do that,” he said.
Citing concerns about projected catastrophic effects of climate change, Brown said he advocates moving away from fossil fuels to keep future Americans safe.
“If we don’t move dramatically to get off the fossil fuels, then we are dooming the future generations,” he said. “That’s immoral. That’s immoral that we can stand up here and put money before the future of this world.”
Brown said he’s talked to climate scientists who told him the world is almost at the point of no return. “It’s now about survivability for the human race.” Changes can be made in a logical way, he said. “It doesn’t have to be this dramatic shutdown of all things that are producing our energy now.” He advocates rewarding cuts in carbon emissions with tax benefits.
McHenry said he’s a proud supporter of the state’s solar industry and touted North Carolina’s stance as the second-largest solar producer among U.S. states.
He’s for an “all-of-the-above” approach, which also means taking advantage of the country’s large supply of natural gas. “We are the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” he said. “We have to acknowledge that natural gas is a part of our future.” McHenry said gas is far less carbon-intensive than other fossil fuels.
Solar and wind power are not the only answers, he said. “Think of the coldest day here in Asheville and think about it being cloudy,” he said. The grid needs to be fueled by a mix of energy types, he said, which might include natural gas and nuclear energy.
Question of impeachment
Wilson and McHenry also responded to speculation that Democrats would push for Trump’s impeachment if the party gains a Congressional majority in the midterms.
McHenry said he looks forward to reading the report completed by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team. Absent any new explosive revelations, however, the congressman doesn’t see any reason for the president to be impeached.
“Moreover, I think impeachment is really about a political tool to slow down the process of legislative success and the success the president has in appointing judges,” McHenry said. Impeachment, he said, would negatively affect the economy and national security. “I think it’s highly destructive to talk about impeachment,” he said.
Brown pushed back against the argument that impeachment would cause havoc in the U.S. economy, pointing to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton during the ‘90s, a period of strong economic growth in the U.S. “I would not push for impeachment unless we have solid evidence coming from that [the Mueller team’s] report,” he said.
Brown asked whether McHenry would support impeachment if the report returned by the Mueller team did detail an impeachable offense.
“I will read the report and make my decision based off that report,” McHenry said. “Heretofore I’ve seen no evidence of an impeachable offense, and if the Mueller report has some earth-shattering thing, I will read that, I will review that, I will make a decision based off that information.”