WAMEGO — Rep. Tim Huelskamp worked hard to paint himself as a relentless optimist during a town hall meeting Wednesday – and then listed a nearly endless set of reasons why he shouldn’t be.
The event at the Wamego Public Library, attended by a couple dozen of Huelskamp’s constituents in District 1, was a rather unique give-and-take that became far more interesting than a typical stump speech from a congressman running for re-election.
For one thing, while Huelskamp took his predictable shots at Obamacare, made his passionate argument for lowering the nation’s debt and criticized what Republicans sarcastically are calling an “imperial presidency,” the representative also ripped into the leadership of his own party — specifically for quashing debate on issue after issue.
“We simply aren’t allowed to debate bills, or changes, or anything that might help the country,” Huelskamp told the audience. “The leadership just tells us things like, ‘Let’s just keep quiet until after the primaries.’ Then it changes to: ‘Let’s not do anything until after November.’
“So what happens is we pass this massive bill allowing the government to raise the debt ceiling, this giant thing that nobody really had any chance to study, to debate, to amend – and the leadership says that’s fine, now let’s shut it down until after the election.”
Yes, he was talking about Republican leadership, and called out speaker John Boehner by name.
Another mild oddity at this event in generally conservative Pottawattomie County: Several members of the audience took Huelskamp to task on a few issues.
After a spirited argument about the federal government’s rules prohibiting children from working on non-family farms, Huelskamp looked straight at two constituents in the front row and said: “I guess I’ll have to respectfully disagree.”
There were other questions, too, that demanded more than pat, political answers. For a town hall at which he was a cinch to be hugely popular, Huelskamp had to be sharp.
The congressman continually hammered away at the “culture of Washington” — both during the town hall event and in an interview with The Mercury — and skewered the influence of cash-wielding lobbyists and the timidity of legislators (including plenty of Republicans) who have no real plan except to stay in office.
“This is the truth,” Huelskamp said. “The very first thing we were told (after being sworn in as members of the House of Representatives) was simple and direct.
“We were told that our No. 1 priority was to get re-elected. So you’ve been in office five minutes and you’re already running in the next campaign?
“How exactly does that lead to any kind of good government?
“It’s no shock that Congress’ approval rating with the public is 8 percent. People have a darn good right to be upset — because we get nothing done.”
Huelskamp isn’t kidding when he says he ruffled some of his colleagues’ feathers with his repeated demands for more meaningful debate and “real governance.”
The 45-year-old second-termer from Fowler has been demoted from two committees by the Republican leadership.
With so much daunting opposition — inside his own party and from Democrats whose policies he believes are pushing the country toward fiscal insolvency – just where in the world does Huelskamp find the optimism he trumpets?
“My wife asks me the same thing all the time,” he said. “She says: ‘Is it all worth it?’
It may seem a bit of a reach to compare a Kansas farmer-politician with a fictional character invented in 1605, but Huelskamp really can sound a bit like a latter-day Don Quixote — a man out to change a world that has little interest in his plans and presents serious, organized opposition to his ideas.
“I know the reality of things make it seem like we’re just locked in stalemate and there’s no way to change a broken system,” Huelskamp said. “But yes, I’m still optimistic — particularly in some areas.
“I was raised on a farm, so I understand there are some things you just can’t fight. But I really believe, especially when we get a group of new, younger members in the House, that there are honest reasons for optimism.”
Huelskamp is particularly enthusiastic about saving money by completely rewriting the U.S. tax codes.
“That’s one place where I truly believe it can happen,” he said. “Everyone in both parties knows the code is a mess. Special interests have bought their way into it — here, there, somewhere else. The whole thing needs to be thrown out and done over.
“Republicans know it, Democrats know it — but even more important, the American people know it most of all. When you line up everyone, then yes, it can happen.
“Let’s just start there, with something that CAN be done.
There are so many other things, but knowing one huge improvement is possible is more than enough to keep me optimistic.”