There were more empty chairs than occupied ones at Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's (R-Menomonee Falls) town hall meeting at the Brookfield Public Safety Building on Sunday. But many of the roughly 25 people who came got a personal greeting and handshake from the congressman, and an opportunity to share their thoughts about the federal government.
"When the employer mandate kicks in, there will be standing room only in this room when I come back," Sensenbrenner quipped, in response to a question about the Affordable Care Act. "There will be no empty chairs at all."
Many attendees had comments and questions about how to strengthen Republican power to battle President Barack Obama and Democrat control of the U.S. Senate.
"When the Republicans do get a microphone, which doesn't seem to be very often, they don't seem to be aggressive enough," Brookfield resident Barbara Moriarty said. "I just wish people would be more on the offense and keep pointing out how wrong this is."
Although Sensenbrenner has recently introduced two bills with bipartisan support, he said it is generally an uphill battle for Republicans to get legislation passed, so they are working in other ways.
"The fact is, with the Republicans being in control only of the House, we can't pass any laws, and if the Senate did pass any, Obama would veto them and we don't have the votes to override the veto," Sensenbrenner said. "We are using our powers to hold hearings, and we are using our powers to issue subpoenas to do the best we can."
With elections coming up in 2014, Sensenbrenner said, he is hopeful about Republican prospects. He thinks the party previously nominated "unelectable" candidates in other states.
"I think we learned our lesson on that," Sensenbrenner said. "I think in this state, as well as in other states, you will see very strong candidates, but most importantly, strong candidates with good ideas on how we change things."
Sensenbrenner said he was 90 percent sure Republicans would maintain control of the House, and felt 50/50 about the Senate.
"But the president and his veto pen will still be in the White House," he added.
Criticism of Obama
Sensenbrenner agreed with some attendees that Obama had violated the Constitution by delaying the employer mandate under the Affordable Care Act.
"The president unilaterally changed the law," Sensenbrenner said. "Presidents can't change laws unilaterally. So my own analysis is what he did was illegal."
But at one point, he tangled with a resident, Ron Woolsey, who said he thought Congress had not vetted Obama properly before his election because of his race.
"I don't think they vetted the current president as well as they should have because he was an African-American, which he is not," Woolsey said. "He had a white mother and a black father. That makes him a mulatto. Nobody ever mentions that, especially the black community. Could you say Congress did not vet him well enough because of a racial issue?"
Sensenbrenner said he thought it was the job of voters, not Congress, to "vet" candidates, and the color of his skin should not have mattered.
"I want to say very clearly that I don't think the color of an elected official's skin should be an issue that is discussed," Sensenbrenner said. "It should be what that individual stands for. It shouldn't be the color of Obama's skin; it should be the fact that he wanted to fundamentally change America, and he's changing America in the wrong direction."
Another resident, Charles Harris, took some of the heat off Sensenbrenner and encouraged the attendees, many of whom were senior citizens, to do more to engage younger people in political discussions.
"It's really sad that all of us here either have no hair like me, or gray hair, because there are generations of young people out there who I have found love to listen to what I know," Harris said. "There are people out there who are trying to hear the wisdom that we carry in these aging bodies. If you go out and change one thing, it's amazing how they will tell someone else, and they will tell someone else. And then instead of looking to the front of the room and saying, 'Why don't you do something about this,' you will be empowered to share your values and make a difference."
Below are other questions posed to the congressman and his responses.
Q What do you think about Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel's proposal to reduce the size of the military?
A "Secretary Hagel's budget proposal is dead on arrival. I'm not here to say we're going to spend more in total on the military than he has recommended, but having an Army that has fewer active duty soldiers than before World War II broke out is not what this country needs to defend itself and to protect American power in other places in the world when and where that is necessary. I also disagree with the fact that he is ramping down the Navy as well. I think what you will see as Congress debates this budget, there might not be a lot more spending, but how that money is divided up is going to be much different than what the secretary of defense is proposing."
Q What is your opinion of Edward Snowden, and what is the government is going to do to prevent collection of Americans' phone data?
A "I believe that Edward Snowden is neither a hero nor a traitor. He is a criminal, and he ought to come back from Russia and be tried before a jury of his peers. What's being done about it is the Freedom Act, which prohibits the bulk collection of phone records. It would allow specific warrants to be issued for foreigners who have been identified as somebody who belongs to a terrorist group. That is the type of targeted surveillance that is necessary, in my opinion, to keep America safe."
Q Did you learn anything from the financial crisis?
A "Yes. First of all, I think Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were the cause of the financial crisis we had in '08-09 because they were the ones pushing sub-prime mortgages on people who didn't have a prayer of being able to pay it. There should be some federal involvement in the mortgage market, but I think the best thing to do is get rid of what has failed and come up with something else, which would be probably use less government money and be subject to more oversight.
"With the Federal Reserve, I think they need oversight. I'm disturbed at (former Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben) Bernanke's quantitative easing, which is in effect running the printing press, and we're going to get hit by inflation. The money goes into the money supply, and I think we're already creating a bubble in the stock market. We got into trouble with the housing bubble almost a decade ago, and I can see a stock market bubble being created, and sometime it's going to burst. And I think there's going to be a lot more people hurt than there was when the housing market bubble burst."
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