Ohioans in Congress answer your questions on Lake Erie, town halls, getting along
Lake Erie is only slightly more than a two-hour drive from Columbus, and Dispatch readers are concerned about what happens on Ohio's north coast.
Many raised environmental concerns in responding to a solicitation for questions to the Buckeye State's two senators — Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman — and three central Ohio U.S. House members: Democrat Joyce Beatty and Republicans Steve Stivers and Pat Tiberi. Those questions were asked amid unconfirmed reports about sharp reductions in environmental regulations, before President Donald Trump's proposed "skinny budget" was released late last week showing about a third of the funds being cut from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget and the elimination of funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Readers also wondered when their elected officials would respond to their questions in a public town-hall meeting — the lack of which sparked this Dispatch effort — and several lamented that the people we send to Washington seemingly can't get along.
Some responses have been edited for length.
Q. What is your position on President Donald Trump's proposal to dramatically cut EPA funding, especially the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative?
A. Well, I am a big supporter of the Great Lakes, and here is someone who brought in an EPA director that wants to get rid of EPA. The Great Lakes are so important to the 11 million people in this great state of Ohio, providing quality water to them. Do I need remind what happened in Toledo in the immediate past?
So obviously, I don't understand why President Trump would put a bull's-eye on the Great Lakes Restoration. ... I mean, I don't know what he drinks or what he wakes up in the middle of the night and thinks. Maybe that's the answer. Maybe he's not waking up and thinking in the middle of the night.
A. It's terrible. It's terrible for Lake Erie, it's terrible for safe drinking water, it's terrible for clean air.
A. I'm sure there can be savings at the EPA, and there will be in this administration because the EPA overreached in the last administration. But there's some really important things that EPA is responsible for, and one is being sure the Great Lakes continues to be making progress toward (fighting) algae-bloom infestation, which is the toxic-algae blooms that shut down the Toledo water supply a few years ago. ...
There are a few million Ohioans who get their water from that lake, and it's the No. 1 one tourist attraction to the state of Ohio. It's huge to that area. And then the invasive species. As you know, I have taken the lead on the (Asian) carp and on other things that have to do with keeping the lake a great place to fish and swim and (for) recreation.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is a good partnership between local, state, federal (government) and the private sector. And it's working. And I took the lead on the legislation to restore the funding that President (Barack) Obama recommended cutting last year, and I'm going to do that again. So it's a program that's working, and the Great Lakes are vital — particularly Lake Erie — to us.
A. I don't believe that the $54 billion in domestic cuts that the president is proposing will be taken seriously on Capitol Hill. And I support the Great Lakes Restoration Fund. I support the EPA doing its job to keep us safe.
I think the EPA has done some things that have exceeded their scope, but I don't think we need to give them massive cuts. I think we need to just have some oversight and supervision of what they do.
A. I would say that historically — but especially under the Obama administration — the EPA has implemented some very burdensome regulations that have hurt our economy and hurt job creators and ultimately jobs, including farmers. So I think there needs to be a balanced approach to ensure the EPA is protecting the environment without destroying jobs.
And specifically with respect to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, as you know it's enjoyed tremendous bipartisan support in the Great Lakes region. I've been supportive of it and will continue to support it. I think it is an example of effective — both federal bipartisanship as well as state and nonprofits — kind of banding together to show the economic and environmental benefits of this project.
When will you hold a public, in-person town-hall meeting to answer questions from your constituents?
A. I do a state-of-the-district (public meeting) and actually take questions and fill up some of largest auditoriums that we have here. I recently participated in a town hall that I think was great.
It's easy when you pick a date for you and you write all the questions and you host your own, but (it's more challenging) when you have your constituents saying, 'We want to put together a town hall; we want you to show up.' Not only did I show up, I flew in my top staff from Washington, D.C., so they could hear the issues. My district director and his team sat there, and we answered every question that was asked to us. ...
We will be putting a tele-town hall together. We on our website put up information, one-minute (speeches) on the House floor, on C-SPAN. You could look to me as definitely keeping my constituents fully informed. I've done tele-town halls and in-person town halls all along.
When it was President Obama putting out the Affordable Care Act and we had questions about it, many people didn't understand it. We held tele-town halls that brought the navigators in, brought the experts in, and we'll be doing the same thing with Republican-care because I'm really big on education and awareness, and an informed constituent is a constituent who can help educate others and know what questions to ask.
A. I am constantly holding meetings to hear from constituents across Ohio and in D.C. I've had 300 roundtables across the state in this Senate term and held public events in all 88 counties. Recently, I've been participating in telephone town halls with Ohioans to get their feedback on President Trump's nominees. And I will continue meeting with Ohioans across the state.
A. As you know, I have been very accessible. I am told that I held 475 events in the state over the last year. ... I have had over 30 events in Ohio in the last couple of months, and I take constituent input very seriously. And I'm listening to everyone. And I am getting a lot of input from across the political spectrum.
And we have already had three tele-town hall meetings this year. We have another one (this) week. We do them regularly. As you know, we have thousands of people on the call. I hear questions from all points of view.
The weekend before, I met with some of the protesters who protested a Republican event down in Sharonville, and the week before I met with protesters who protested an event in Columbus, and had good conversations with them. I'll continue to meet with people in ways that are constructive where people can actually ask a question and I can answer the question.
We are proud of our constituent services. We spend a lot of time and effort in ensuring that when people engage with us, that we listen and that we let them know what we think. So I'll continue to do that.
A. I held a telephone town hall today (Wednesday). I'm holding another one on the 28th of this month. We do one every couple of weeks. And then I'll do a live town hall when it makes sense. I don't know when that is yet.
We've got a bunch we are looking at over the next couple of periods that we're home. It's in the mix, and it's something I'm thinking about, but I don't know how much time we're going to have (to be in) different places based on the things I want to get done.
A. I have spent more time in meetings with my constituents — most of whom disagree with what we're doing on the Affordable Care Act — in my district office over the last couple months.
It's actually more productive, and you have a dialogue with people, and you can understand where they're coming from and what their concerns are, rather than having a meeting where people are shouting back and forth and people getting interrupted and not being able to share your story and have a productive dialogue on the challenges that people might be having with different problems of the federal government.
It makes great ink, it makes great copy, but what's happening right now across the country is cookie-cutter coming out of two Democrat staffers that are trying to fire up a base. It's not helpful to actually try and get policy down.
What is it going to take to get both parties to work together for the benefit of the country instead of party?
A. I think it starts at the top. I think you have to remove people like (Trump adviser) Kellyanne (Conway), who is probably — if I were a Republican — a great campaign person because you look for an attack dog. But the problem you have when you carry over people who are just campaign people, they don't understand. Every time you ask her a question, she answers it with something negative to President Obama. Well, I've got news for her. He's gone. He's no longer the president, and she feeds information to (Trump).
I think you have to start with the basics. You have to start with respect. You don't have a person like her sitting in the Oval Office, when you have presidents of African-American universities, and she's sitting (on a couch) with her shoes off (and looking at) a telephone. I was always taught to keep my feet off the furniture. I just think it speaks to the disrespect for him to allow that.
I think when you don't have anything you're willing to compromise on — and that's on both sides — everyone is going to have to give a little. But I think it starts at the top with the leaders not coming in with everything automatically set and no wiggle room. I think it's going to start in Congress and in the Senate.
We cannot have people come out like my colleague, (Iowa Rep. Steve) King, the other day making some of the most racist, discriminatory, mean-spirited statements that an elected official can make. (King approved of a quote that civilizations can't be restored with "someone else's babies.") I mean, we just got thrown everything. The Muslims, the African-Americans, the Jews, and now he is saying if you're not white, marry white and having white babies, that there's no place for you here. That's the most absurd thing that I have heard of. And for the president not to make a statement against that — I mean, you're getting just at every culture that makes up this wonderful diverse democracy that we live in ....
I do think on a positive note that central Ohio is off to a start that maybe more could model after. We have three people in central Ohio — two Republicans and one Democrat — and one of the things we have figured out is you don't have to be disagreeable to disagree. So we find our common ground. Whether that's children and housing, whether that's financial illiteracy ... we've made a concentrated effort, and we work hard at finding some common ground for the 11 million people in Ohio.
A. I was proud to be named one of the most productive members of Congress last year — passing more legislation into law than nearly any other senator. But I didn't do it alone. I know the only way to get things done is to reach across the aisle, find common ground and work together. That's why I've introduced more than 10 bipartisan bills already this year — many of them with Sen. Portman because we know that we are more effective for Ohio when we work together.
A. I am concerned about the country being so divided. As I said, I am getting a lot of input from across the political spectrum. We've got big problems in our country we need to solve, and that requires finding common ground.
I've been successful at doing that in the last six years in the sense that I can point to more than 50 bills that have become law of the land, meaning by definition they're bipartisan because they were with a Democratic president and 60 votes needed in the Senate, which needed bipartisanship.
So from permitting reform to the environmental stuff you talked about but also obviously on the drug issues, (Congress) passed four or five bills, including the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, which were totally bipartisan.
I know you can do it. I do it. And I try to lead by example. And I'll continue to do that. Because on all these issues, most Americans share common objectives: how to get the economy moving and get wages up; how to stop the flow of drugs into our communities ... how to make regulations work better.
I do think even with the country being more divided, we can put our heads down and plow forward and work together and get things done.
A. I think it takes people trying to find common ground. Joyce Beatty and Pat Tiberi and I, I think, set a pretty good example of that. Just yesterday (Tuesday), Joyce and I were at the Huckleberry House, which is a teen runaway center in Columbus, to talk about youth homelessness and a bill that I'm sponsoring on that.
I think we need to take small steps on things we can agree on that are easy first, and then as you build trust and confidence and rapport with each other, you can do the harder stuff. So that's what I try to do every day is reach out and work with Democrats.
In the last Congress, I sponsored 17 bills, I think, and every one of them had a bipartisan Democrat co-sponsor, including bills like the Balanced Budget Amendment with Kyrsten Sinema that we're getting ready to reintroduce and bills with Joyce Beatty that help people that want to buy a home that passed unanimously, actually, in the House and then passed the Senate and then got signed into law.
I'm proud to say I try to work in a bipartisan nature every day, and there are certainly things Republicans and Democrats disagree on, but I think we need to learn to listen to each other and try to find common ground where we can.
A. Obviously, on the really big issues, there are fundamental disagreements between Democrats and Republicans on policy. Over the 16 years that I have been in Congress, I have enjoyed bipartisan collaboration with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle. And right now I am working on legislation with (Democratic) Sen. Cory Booker ... from New Jersey, and Rep. Ron Kind, a rural Democrat from Wisconsin, to fight poverty both in urban and rural areas. So I've got a history of doing that.
It's been as tough and polarized as it's ever been since I've been here, and it continues to get worse. And I think we, both in the media and in public office, need to try to figure out ways to work together to make it less partisan.
At the end of the day, I can get on national TV if I tear somebody down because that's what we've come to, with respect to ratings on TV or radio. That kind of news sells. Keeping your head down and working hard and getting stuff done doesn't sell as much. So I think it's going to require a whole new type of approach to try to get people to work together to actually accomplish things because that doesn't sell as much.