In a public political showdown, U.S. Rep. Bill Owens (D-Plattsburgh) and G.O.P. challenger Matt Doheny clashed over issues of health care, Social Security reform and labor-union organizing.
The two offered a variety of conflicting views during a debate held Tuesday Sept. 25 at Queensbury High School, just weeks before they face off in the November general election to represent the new 21st Congressional District.
About 400 people attended the debate, many of them voicing cheers or jeers — particularly over the national Affordable Health Care Act, also dubbed “Obamacare.”
Doheny said he opposed the Employee Free Choice Act, commonly known as “card-check,” which deletes a present a requirement for secret balloting in union organizing or recruiting.
He said that enactment of the legislation would crimp job creation and hamper small business growth.
“I have a deep belief in freedom and fairness,” Doheny said. “Secret ballots are a fundamental American principle.
Owens said he supported card check because it aided wage earners in their quest for fair pay and decent work conditions.
“Seventy percent of the economy is consumer purchasing, and I support the middle class,” he said.
Both said bolstering the economy was their prime objective, but they differed on ways of achieving that goal. While Doheny focused on easing regulations and taxes on entrepreneurs to create new jobs, Owens countered that there were 3,000 unfilled job positions in the region that required skills that applicants don’t now possess.
Owens said he was working with workforce investment boards and private groups to make appropriate training available so thousands of area residents could take on these positions — and boost the economy.
“My focus is clearly on getting those jobs filled,” he said, noting that workers needed new skills to operate computer-driven manufacturing equipment.
In response, Doheny said that easing regulations now crimping small businesses would allow them to become more competitive and allow expansion — and result in job creation. He said he personally toured more than 100 businesses this summer, and most all the entrepreneurs told him that rolling back regulations was critical to their survival or expansion.
“I’ve heard from the business owners that Washington has run amuck with regulations,” he said, noting he supported the Regulatory Freeze for Jobs Act, which makes it more difficult for government to impose new regulations that have a negative impact of more than $100 million on the economy.
Owens voted against the measure, Doheny noted.
“Excessive regulation slows down job growth and kills the spirit of those who create jobs,” he said.
Owens countered that he indeed supported reducing needless regulations.
Health care legislation was the most contentious issue of the debate, one of a series of three to be held for the candidates before Election Day.
“If elected, I will work to repeal and replace Obamacare,” Doheny said, prompting a chorus of simultaneous boos and cheers from the crowd. Owens voted for the Act in 2010.
Doheny said the legislation was expensive, would prompt employers to opt out of employee insurance plans, and put the power of health care into the hands of the national Independent Payment Advisory Board — while not addressing the issue of tort reform, which he said would reduce health care costs.
“Obamacare allows 15 unelected people to have complete power over our health care, and this is unconstitutional and I won’t stand for it,” Doheny said.
He also criticized the Affordable Care Act for its pending provision to impose a 2.3 percent excise tax on the revenue of medical device manufacturers, a major employer in the region.
Owens countered that he favored amending the Affordable Care Act rather than repealing it. He said it was vital to protect the health of citizens — by forcing insurance companies to provide coverage for pre-existing conditions, by extending coverage for college students up to age 26 under their parents’ health plans, and by banning insurance companies from cancelling insurance of those who are ill.
“If the Affordable Care Act is replaced, any new legislation must address these issues,” Owens said.
The candidates also sparred on Social Security reform.
Owens said he didn’t agree with Doheny’s intent to make Social Security solvent by raising the full eligibility age from 66 to 67, or eliminating benefits to the wealthy, or shifting Social Security payments into private retirement investment accounts.
“Attempts to privatize Social Security are very concerning,” Owens said. “Social Security is the floor upon which many of our citizens live, and it cannot be tampered with.”
Owens added that for a high percentage of elderly in our region, Social Security provides their main source of income.
“I want to make sure any changes are focused on the needs of the people,” he said.
Doheny responded that without major reform, Social Security would be insolvent in 22 to 25 years.
“We can’t put our heads in the sand and pretend that the problems will go away,” he said, citing that age and earnings eligibility rules would have to change to protect the system.
Green Party candidate Donald Hassig of Colton, NY also participated in the debate. He said he supported a raise in Social Security benefits to a floor of $1,500 per month, advocated government-supported free health care and free education for all. He also said he opposed corporate farming, stronger environmental protection.
Hassig also urged withdrawal from the World Trade organization, an action he said would create 30 million new jobs for Americans, reducing unemployment to zero percent.
He also said he supported taxing wall street transactions, particularly in credit swaps and derivatives. as well as reducing military spending — measures he said would pay for his initiatives.
“Love the earth, change everything,” Hassig said.