In his first year in Congress, Rep. Kevin Cramer has learned that tax reform could take a long time, the health-care reform law will have to die a natural death and North Dakota is a popular place to be from right now.
Cramer held one of his freshman forums in Minot Wednesday, hosted at the Grand Hotel by the Minot Area Chamber of Commerce.
A former state tourism director, Cramer spoke about the interest in Washington, D.C. in visiting North Dakota to see the oil activity and economic growth. Just as the nation is interested in what is happening in North Dakota, participants at the Minot forum wanted to know what is being done in Washington about the nation's $17 trillion debt.
Congressman Kevin Cramer, with his wife, Kris, holds a forum in Minot Wednesday.
"Sequester is a lousy way to budget but it did cut $85 million and restored some faith in the investment community," Cramer said of the automatic budget cuts that occurred when Congress failed to produce a budget. "If that little bit can do that, think of what we can do if we actually send some signals to the market place that we are serious. ... The job creation world wants to see us do something. They don't care much who gets the credit for it. They just want to see something done."
Cramer sponsored a bill to close dormant bank accounts that the federal government holds, saving about $2 million a year in bank fees. He said it is a small move but it is action.
Cramer said he hopes to avoid future sequester cuts because rather than reduce waste, those cuts hit priority programs such as defense, education and human services. He noted both houses of Congress have proposed budgets, a first step in heading off another sequester.
"We now have two budgets for the first time in five years," he said. "We could actually go to Congress and reconcile, but I don't know that we will. They are so far apart."
Cramer said he looks to a North Dakota Democrat when it comes to addressing the budget problems.
"The person that I have listened to, who has been most right on point, has been former senator Kent Conrad, who emphatically proclaims that we are not going to deal with our debt if we aren't going to deal with entitlements," Cramer said. "Not dealing with entitlements is kicking the can just barely down the road because the due date is coming upon us. The longer we go without fixing it, the more severe the fix will be."
Chad Oban, executive director for the state Democratic-NPL Party, said from Bismarck Wednesday that Cramer may say he agrees with Conrad but he does not vote as Conrad did. He said Cramer has voted for deep cuts in areas such as the nutrition program in the farm bill.
"Those kinds of draconian cuts aren't what we need in the state," he said.
Cramer has stated that the $20 billion in cuts will remove waste and abuse in the nutrition program.
Cramer heard from directors of KALIX, which holds federal contracts that employ people with development disabilities, and Quentin Burdick Job Corps Center, which operates on federal funding. Neither organization was affected by sequester cuts, but directors stressed the importance of continued federal funding at adequate levels.
Job Corps was forced to stop accepting new students for more than three months this year due to nationwide reductions to the program, director Rae Schobinger said. Enrollment capacity dropped from 250 to 197, with current enrollment at 130. The center cut staff but has been able to hire many of them back. Once at about 115 employees, the program now has about 90 staff members, Schobinger said.
Cramer listed the Affordable Care Act as adding to the nation's financial difficulties. Commenting on the likelihood of repeal of the act, Cramer said political polarization will preclude that from happening.
"But what could happen, what a lot of people think might happen and some are quite certain will happen is that it almost has to crumble," he said, referring to the potential for the law's provisions to fail. Opposition from state governments also could jeopardize the act.
On other issues, Cramer said he doesn't expect to see tax reform anytime soon because many of the tax breaks that complicate the code have their supporters and often justification. He does expect to see an immigration reform bill out of the House as early as next week and a farm bill in conference committee by the end of June.