By Andy Cohen | Congressional Watch
To paraphrase a common adage, stuff just got real for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-50). The San Diego Union-Tribune has chronicled in detail — during the 2016 campaign and since — the myriad of missteps Hunter has made by using campaign funds for personal expenditures.
The House Ethics Committee (HEC) had been investigating Hunter’s campaign finance follies, but on March 20, the committee announced that they had unanimously decided to put their inquiry on hold.
This is not good news for Hunter: The reason the HEC demurred was because the Department of Justice (DOJ), having opened a criminal investigation into the matter, had requested the committee step aside, at least temporarily.
A New York Times story quoted HEC sources, who said that “Mr. Hunter may have converted tens of thousands of dollars of campaign funds from his congressional campaign committee to personal use to pay for family travel, flights, utilities, health care, school uniforms and tuition, jewelry, groceries, and other goods, services and expenses.”
The Times also reported that in January, congressional Republicans had attempted to squash any investigations that could lead to criminal charges, but acquiesced after receiving a relentless barrage of phone calls and complaints.
Since last April, Hunter has repaid $62,000 in personal expenses to his campaign.
Hunter is not alone among recent members of Congress to face charges.
In July 2015, former U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm (R–NY) was convicted and sentenced to eight months in prison for tax evasion stemming from an investigation into his campaign finances.
U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D–Il) was sentenced in 2013 to 30 months in prison for appropriating $750,000 in campaign funds for personal use. With the DOJ directly investigating Hunter, it would seem that he could be headed for a similar fate.
Rowdy town halls
Recent town hall meetings have not been kind to Republican members of Congress (both the House and the Senate) nationwide. In 2010, it was Democratic lawmakers who faced the rhetorical firing squads in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. That theme has not changed; only this time it’s Republicans who are taking the verbal flak.
Yes, I know. Sounds like a broken record; the health care fight has been a main topic in this space for months. But it’s a subject that simply will not go away, particularly with the Republican Congress’ attempt to ramrod through the American Healthcare Act (AHCA for short) that the Congressional Budget Office determined would take away access to health care for 24 million Americans, and raise the cost of health care for everyone.
On March 11, U.S. Reps. Darrell Issa (R-49), Hunter, Susan Davis (D-53) and Scott Peters (D-52) all held town hall meetings, with the tenor of the Democrat’s gatherings far friendlier than those of the Republicans.
Although there were many topics discussed, the predominant subject was health care and the AHCA bill that Republicans ultimately decided not to bring to the House floor for a vote. It was a terrible bill. Not only would it ultimately strip coverage for 24 million people, it would have gutted provisions in the ACA that guarantee certain services are covered by all insurance plans, including prenatal and maternity care, mental health care, prescription drugs, in-hospital care, outpatient care, and rehabilitation services, among others.
The bill would also have rolled back the expansion of Medicaid beginning in 2020. According to Davis, before the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), only 12 percent of health care policies included prenatal and maternity care. She also noted that since the ACA has been in effect, 50 percent of births have been covered by Medicaid. The Republican plan would have eliminated that coverage.
At issue is a fundamental disagreement over whether health care is a right afforded to all people, or a privilege reserved only for those who can afford it. Democrats believe it is a basic right. But as far as Hunter is concerned, health care is a privilege. He said during his town hall that he does not believe in guaranteed health care.
“I’m sorry to hear him say that,” Davis said, when asked about Hunter’s comment. “Our country is better off when people are healthy. Children are better off when the child sitting next to them in school is healthy. We’re all in this together and I’m sorry that he feels that way.”
“We have seen what happens when families without insurance are forced to use the emergency room for routine care, or are put into financial ruin because of a long-term illness,” Peters said in a statement to SDCNN. “That system was inefficient, costly, and wrong — we can’t go back. It should be Congress’ goal to ensure access to quality, affordable health care for every American.”
“We already have our bill,” Davis said when asked whether Democrats were prepared to offer an alternative to the Republican health care bill. “It’s called the Affordable Care Act and we’re trying to protect it.”
That’s not to say that the ACA is perfect and isn’t in need of improvements. It’s not, and it is, and Democrats almost universally have acknowledged this from the beginning. If Republicans were willing to take that approach, they would likely find Democrats open to having that discussion.
Climate change news
U.S. Reps. Issa and Juan Vargas (D-51) both announced in March that they had joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, a bipartisan group of lawmakers — that includes 14 Democrats and 14 Republicans, mostly from coastal regions — whose aim is to address global warming. Peters joined the group last June, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.
“With the new administration and newly united government, I think we have an opportunity to take fresh look at this problem and see what can be accomplished in a more bipartisan manner,” Issa said, as quoted in that story.
Unlike many of his Republican colleagues, Issa does acknowledge the realities of climate change. But unlike his Democratic colleagues, he does not believe there is much consensus on the rate the climate is changing and at what point it will be critical to act.
The National Academy of Sciences disagrees.
“The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify taking steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” the academy said in 2005.
—Andy Cohen is a local freelance writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.