It was a rare night: a debate on the issues. With the presidential race dominating headlines and the focus mostly on the horse race, time in the spotlight is slim for congressional candidates, especially when it comes to policy matters.
The rather neglected races in the House of Representatives relished 90 minutes in the spotlight Monday night during the first in a series of four policy debates, this one on the economy. The Democratic Leadership Council, the Congressional Institute, the House Republican Conference, and the House Democratic Caucus organized the debate.
Eight House members—one of whom thanked the White House contenders for leaving the evening free—drew sharp distinctions on how Democrats and Republicans would bolster the sagging economy, which has emerged as the No. 1 issue as the November 4 elections approach. Despite the differences, the evening also highlighted bipartisanship. One organizer saluted Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, and Rep. Adam Putnam, who heads the House Republican Conference, for agreeing to the matchups, saying they deserved credit "for trying to move past the hyperpartisan atmosphere on Capitol Hill."
Emanuel led the Democrats, who condemned GOP stewardship of the economy and offered three proposals to allow the United States to maintain its competitive edge.Democratic leadership during the '90s resulted in a record budget surplus, he said."In the seven years since, Republicans have produced $3.8 trillion in new debt and made China our national banker."
He proposed a universal one-year, post-high-school education; a national infrastructure bank to rebuild roads, bridges, and water systems; and a National Institute of Science and Energy, modeled after the National Institutes of Health.
Emanuel and colleagues called for a reining in the alternative minimum tax, a rollback of $14 billion in tax breaks to the oil industry, and investment in worker training.
Another target: the cost of the Iraq war, which Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama put at $700 billion and called a "strategic miscalculation" preventing investments at home.
House Republican Paul Ryan of Wisconsin countered by saying the Bush administration began with a recession, the burst of the dot-com bubble, and the 9/11 attacks, yet the party's economic policies have translated into 8.3 million new jobs.
Ryan's side argued for keeping taxes low, fixing the "litigation environment," and lifting regulations that "tie companies' hands behind their backs." They rejected a government-run, "one-size-fits-all" approach to healthcare and called for entitlement reform, free trade, and expanding clean-coal and nuclear energy.
Republicans stressed Washington doesn't have all the answers. "We cannot jump at the temptation, every time something goes wrong, to say that Washington knows best and that we can fix every problem here from D.C.," House Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia said.
The debate at George Washington University was moderated by Ron Brownstein, political director for Atlantic Media Co. Also participating were Democrats Rob Andrews of New Jersey and Steve Israel of New York, and Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington.
The House debate was the first in a series of four. Healthcare will be the topic in early April at a debate outside Washington, D.C.
Today, the House has 231 Democrats, 198 Republicans, and six vacancies. Already 25 GOP House lawmakers have announced plans to retire or step down to seek another office—five times the number of Democrats.