Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) made a stop at Thomas Hunter Middle School in Mathews last Friday afternoon during a whirlwind tour of various localities in Eastern Virginia.
With little preliminary comment, Warner launched right into a discussion of the U.S. economy, describing it as "out of pitch" because "for the last 10 years, this country didn’t make much of anything." Instead, he said, the economy was driven by an overvalued real estate market.
"Instead of turning out engineers who built things," he said, "we turned out financial engineers who created bad products and brought us to the verge of collapse."
When evaluating the current economy, he said, people need to remember what the economy was like in March of 2008, with a Dow at 6,500, the loss of 700,000 jobs a month, and a Gross Domestic Product in decline.
"We weren’t sure if we would ever see the TARP money back," he said.
Now, just a year later, he said, there have been two quarters of growth, 80 cents on the dollar of TARP funds have been returned, and the stock market has hit 11,000.
The negative side of the economy, however, is that job growth isn’t positive, and the overall economic picture might not look very good to people without jobs or to small businesses that can’t get loans. Jobs come from the private sector, not the public sector, said Warner, and corporate America’s balance sheets have never been healthier because corporations have downsized.
"Those jobs are not coming back," he said, "so we’ve gotta figure out how to make jobs come back."
Warner said he’s working on a program designed to "juice up small business" that’s based on reforming the energy system, and he touted that reform as important for national security reasons rather than necessary because of climate change.
"It makes me mad that we’re spending billions buying oil from countries with terrorists attacking us," he said, "and unless we get off our oil addiction, we won’t get the problem solved."
China has a higher fuel efficiency than the U.S., said Warner, with a solar industry that has grown so fast in just 10 years that its exports exceed $500 billion a year.
In addition to developing alternative energy sources, the U.S. needs to use more nuclear, find a way to use more coal, and use more domestic oil and gas, he said, "but every other country is changing its energy mix, and we’re falling behind."
Developing alternative energies shouldn’t be hampered by concern over negatively affecting existing industries, he said, because "that would be like saying we don’t want cell phones because it might hurt landlines." New energy sources need to be developed, he said, "then let the market run."
The country needs job creation, said Warner, but the single overriding issue that needs to be addressed is the deficit. He said that when the economy shut down in 2007 and 2008, it made sense for the government to step in, and that the problem with the deficit is not education, transportation, "or even defense," but health care.
"We’ve got to ratchet those costs down," he said. "Unlimited health care without an evaluation of what works and what doesn’t can’t be sustained. We can’t say that health care should be based on volume as opposed to outcome."
Warner said he doesn’t think either political party has all the answers, and that he’s been attacked by Democrats for being too conservative and by Republicans for being too liberal. The only way to get the deficit under control, he said, is to come up with a plan and then have both parties vote straight up or straight down for it, without any deals.
"The more veteran members (of Congress) don’t like that because it erodes their power," he said. "But the newer members want to be serious about deficits."
A recent bill that would have helped with the deficit was co-sponsored by Democrats and Republicans over a two-year period, said Warner, but when it got on the floor of the Senate, seven Republicans who had been co-sponsors voted against it only because President Obama had said it made sense.
"Not a word had changed," he said. "Sometimes you’ve got to go past the talk."
The nation took on fascism, the depression, communism and terrorism, said Warner, and it’s become equally challenging to make sure there’s a balanced budget.
Warner said that the old-fashioned formula for federal funding of education doesn’t make sense and that funding should be tied to performance. Math and science reform are critical if the U.S. wants to lead the world in innovation, he said, but there also needs to be a way for students who don’t plan to attend college to receive an education that makes them productive citizens.
"We’ve got to recognize that a four-year college education is not the right choice for every kid," he said.
Career and technical education need to have some guarantees, he said, with a free semester of college given to each student who wants to complete certification in a certain field.
"If we turn a minimum wage employee into a person with certification, it increases that person’s income," he said. "That’s an investment worth making."
In addition, said Warner, in order to drive down the costs of higher education, community college should be the first step for most college-bound students. "Just increasing financial aid won’t close the gap," he said.
Warner said he had lots of other ideas, but because of time constraints, he asked for questions from the audience.
David Holleran, Mathews County Public Schools superintendent, told Warner that he would rather see federal funds currently used for education being spent on the deficit instead. The Mathews County Schools budget has decreased from $14 million to $12 million, he said, with "a paltry $200,000" coming from the federal No Child Left Behind program.
"We’ve got to meet the demands of all the subgroups of children having to pass," Holleran said. "I would like to say goodbye to that money."
Mathews schools have done a good job of meeting the requirements of Virginia’s Standards of Learning, said he, but it can’t meet the standards of NCLB because of one subgroup.
Warner said that states can turn down the 8 percent funding provided by the federal government, but so far no state has. In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, the idea developed that the country has to sink or swim as a whole because some states weren’t spending even the minimum on education.
"In those states, Title I would be the juice to bring them up to a minimum level," he said.
While No Child Left Behind works well in a large district, he said, small counties such as Mathews get the short end of the stick because one subgroup "can destroy a school’s reputation." However, he said, the No Child Left Behind act shouldn’t be discarded; it should be fixed.
"We’re all in this together in America," Warner said, "and all places should have that minimal education. I’ll do all that I can to fix it so that small localities don’t get hit."
Gloucester County’s Superintendent of Schools Ben Kiser took exception to the idea of spending public money on charter schools that have lower standards than public schools. He said that while NCLB and Race to the Top have some good components with high standards, the federal government’s support of charter schools and voucher programs essentially says "if you don’t have these, we’ll give you money to go elsewhere that doesn’t have the same expectations."
Warner described the situation as "Obama taking on the Republican idea of more school choice." He said he doesn’t support the voucher program, but does support charter schools as long as they meet the standards.
Molly Broderson, principal of Achilles Elementary School, brought up the subject of Head Start and the problems that arise when there is a wide range of capabilities among preschool-aged children.
Warner said that Head Start was a valuable program in some places, but just a government babysitting program in others. But by the time a child is three or four years old, its brain is hard-wired, he said, so there needs to be a way to stimulate them if their parents aren’t doing the job.
"If a person ends up on welfare, you’ve lost," he said.
He said that communities have to come together, fill in the gaps, and hold the federal government accountable for offering a Head Start program "with some level of academic rigor."
Mathews School Board member Bill Johnson said that the school system is heading into its third year of level funding for teachers’ salaries, students are now having to pay to play sports, and there’s no money for career and technical education. The county supervisors are doing all they can, he said, but "we’re in trouble … we don’t see any relief … and the only place to cut now is instruction." The one stop-gap the federal government could take, he said, would be to fully fund special education.
"It would be easy to say I’m going to make that happen," said Warner. "But with the mindset going on, we’re not going to fund stuff that’s not paid for. You’re not going to see that, at least not in the short term."
Health care bill
One audience member told Warner he was surprised that the senator had supported the health care bill. He said that he hadn’t been able to find Warner’s position on the bill and couldn’t understand how he could have voted his conscience. He accused Warner of not knowing what was in the bill. The comments received a spattering of applause.
Warner said he knew what was in the health care bill, and that there had been a lot of misinformation about it. He said he had supported having a bill that would be paid for and would have "no big new public option."
"The referee was the Congressional Budget Office," he said. "We may not like the call the referee makes, but in the fourth quarter, we can’t kick out the referee. They said it was paid for, and there was no public option."
Warner said he voted for the bill because "while imperfect, it was going to shock the health care system and force the American people and Congress to come back and fix it if it’s bad." The country was headed for $130 billion more in health care expenditures, he said, "and that would bankrupt everybody."
The challenge now is in implementation, he said. Information technology will allow for better record-keeping, he said, but he agreed that the bill is "a lot more about coverage and not enough about cost control."
One audience member told about his own problems with the health care system that weren’t alleviated by adequate record-sharing because he had taken his health care records with him to each doctor’s office and he still had tests that were repeated and items that were denied by the insurance company.
Warner said that a lot of patients don’t take their records with them, and that a common record-keeping system will make a difference. In addition, he said, the bill has a fee system based on keeping a person healthy, and allows only for tests that have some medical efficiency.
Stimulus package and deficit
Asked why he had voted for the stimulus package, Warner said it was because the economy had been so down. In defense of the bill, he said it had included the largest tax cut in history, spent not in a single check but in each week’s paycheck. In addition, money was funneled out to the states for education, Medicaid and other programs. The one part of the stimulus package that wasn’t as quick as it should have been, he said, was funding spent on such projects as a smart grid, high speed rail, and broadband.
Warner said it’s disingenuous to say that the deficit all happened in the past 18 months. The $1 trillion drug program passed in 2003 was never paid for, he said, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were "put on a credit card."
"But the biggest reason for the deficit is none of these," he said. "It’s health care costs."
Communication with Washington
One audience member told Warner that he didn’t feel his voice has been heard in Washington, D.C., that his letters had ended up in the trash.
Warner told him that he has 38 to 40 people on his staff, with half of them in Washington and half around the rest of the state. Three of those people answer the phone and four or five work on legislation, he said. During the health care debate, he said his office received 100,000 calls and letters a week. While he read only a smattering of the letters himself, his staff read them and tallied the opinions. The letters were overwhelmingly against the health care bill, he said.
"But in America, we have a representative democracy," said Warner. "I listen, then I make a judgment. If you don’t like me, you fire me. It would be a disaster to vote on every issue by internet."
When he was governor of Virginia, said Warner, people were mad when he shut down DMV offices one day a week.
"But we had to pay what we promised to the people of Virginia," he said.
One audience member told Warner that she had lost all faith and belief in government, while another accused him of acting as a pawn of the current administration.
"I think people are trying with good will," replied Warner. "Don’t give up on us."
After the senator left, Jen Little said that the lively exchange of opinions was healthy, but she expressed disappointment at the small turnout.
"It was an opportunity missed," she said. "When’s the next time we’ll have a U.S. Senator in Mathews and it’s not a closed fundraising event?"