Congress candidates spar over economic stimulus
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
The three leading candidates in the May special election for Congress differed sharply last night on the value of the federal economic stimulus package, with former Congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa contending it was necessary to get through the recession while Honolulu City Councilman Charles Djou argued it was too costly and ineffective.
The $787 billion stimulus package approved by Congress and President Obama in February 2009 was intended to help rescue taxpayers, private industry and state governments, but some economists have questioned its impact on job creation and economic growth.
Djou, a Republican, said at a Hawaii Public Radio debate that the reason for the growing national deficit is "because the strategy of the United States Congress right now is spend, spend, spend and, when in doubt, spend some more.
"If there's a problem in our nation, throw money at it. I don't believe throwing money at a problem has ever fixed anything in our nation."
Case, a Democrat, said the economic stimulus was necessary — if administered imperfectly — because the country was in a crisis. "If you don't like something, then what is your alternative?
"You can't just say 'no' all the time. You have to come up with a constructive alternative. What was the alternative to save this economy? I think the stimulus package had to be implemented."
Hanabusa, a Democrat, said the state budget would not have been balanced without the nearly $1 billion from the stimulus package. Absent the stimulus money, lawmakers would likely have had to make deeper cuts to public education and social-service programs or raise additional taxes.
"So to say the stimulus did not work, is not true in Hawai'i," she said. "We just wish that it was more transparent."
The candidates answered questions about health care, the national deficit, the federal No Child Left Behind education law, and campaign-finance reform during the 90-minute debate hosted by political reporter Wayne Yoshioka at Hawaii Public Radio's Atherton studio.
Case and Djou described the deficit as the nation's biggest long-term problem. All three leading candidates favored a deficit-neutral policy when dealing with spending bills in Congress, but Case and Djou specifically backed a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Case and Djou also called for the reform of earmarks, federal spending targeted by lawmakers to local or state projects. U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, has often used earmarks to secure federal money for Hawai'i projects and has defended the tool as a way to get funds that otherwise would go to other states.
The candidates also supported President Obama's decision to revise the federal No Child Left Behind education law, which requires that all students be proficient in math and reading by 2014 and imposes penalties on public schools that do not make adequate improvement.
Hanabusa said Obama is rightly focusing on the relationship between the teachers and students by measuring success based on progress toward college preparation and career readiness, rather than rigid proficiency benchmarks tied to standardized tests.
Case said he still believes in the intention behind No Child Left Behind, which was meant to help close the achievement gap linked to race and income, and said the federal government should have a role in setting education standards.
Djou, however, said education should be left to the states. He said No Child Left Behind was well intentioned but has turned into an unfunded mandate on states.
HEALTH CARE REFORM
On health care reform, Djou said he would vote against the bill favored by Obama that would cover the uninsured and prevent people from being denied insurance because of pre-existing health conditions through a combination of tax increases and containing rising medical costs. Instead, Djou said he supports medical malpractice liability reform, increasing competition by allowing insurers to sell policies across state lines, and individual medical accounts so people could choose their own health plans instead of being provided options from their employers.
Case said he agreed on malpractice reform and greater competition among insurers, but does not believe market-based changes would reduce the number of people who are uninsured or prevent people from being denied insurance because of pre-existing health conditions.
Hanabusa said the federal government should look at some type of single-payer model on health care and could learn from the state's Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974, which requires companies to provide insurance for employees who work at least 20 hours a week.
Asked about their biggest challenge, Case said his would be to change the partisan political discourse in Washington, D.C. "We've been whipsawed for too long between partisan extremes, one side to the other.
"Everybody yelling across this great divide where most of us live," he said. "Most of us live and think and work in the middle."
Hanabusa said her focus would be on job creation in industries important to the state such as tourism and construction. "Let's face it, jobs (are) the stability of our families," she said.
Djou said he would fight to reduce taxes so people can keep more of the money they earn. He said he would try to break "a culture built around spending" in Congress.
The May 22 special election is winner-take-all and the victor will serve out the remaining months in Abercrombie's term, which ends in January 2011. Abercrombie resigned in February to concentrate on his campaign in the Democratic primary for governor.
Rafael Del Castillo and Philmund Lee, Democrats who are running in the special election, and Charles Amsterdam, a Republican, also participated in the debate.
The September primary and November general election will determine who will replace Abercrombie in urban Honolulu's 1st Congressional District.