In a debate hosted by Gonzaga University this week, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-Washington) and Republican challenger Chris Vance promoted distinct visions of how to grow the state and national economies, cut debt and reform entitlements.
More than half of Americans do not have $500 to cover a personal emergency, and the total federal public debt is nearing $20 trillion.
TPP In The Spotlight
Vance advocated comprehensive tax reform, a harder line on debt reduction, and support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Murray emphasized removing existing tax incentives for corporations and wealthier Americans, to increase education funding. She also accented requiring sick pay leave, and raising the federal minimum wage.
However, Murray was ambivalent when asked about her support for TPP, saying she wants to read the final version before deciding. The agreement as written would cut 18,000 taxes levied on U.S. exports and boost the fortunes of Washington, one of the most trade-dependent states in the country.
Murray said the U.S. needs to ensure there are “fair rules as we try to sell our products overseas.” She added, “We need to make sure that…(trade rules) are strong, that there is enforcement, that we do protect the values of Washington state, about our environmental and our labor laws,” she said.
Vance argued that rejecting trade agreements such as TPP is “economic suicide” and “will destroy Washington’s economy.”
Differences Over Proposed U.S. Minimum Wage Hike
Their enthusiasm reversed when discussing the federal minimum wage. In 2015 Murray sponsored SB 1150, which would have raised the federal minimum wage from its current rate of $7.25 to $12 an hour by 2020. The bill failed to get out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
“The minimum wage is a really important policy that assures that you’re going to work every day and (earn) enough not to live in poverty,” Murray said.
Vance favors raising the federal minimum wage, but not unilaterally across the country. “When you make it more expensive to hire people, fewer people get hired,” he said. “Raising the minimum too far, too fast will hurt the people we’re trying to help.”
In Washington voters will decide whether to approve Initiative 1433 raising the state minimum wage from $9.47 to $13.50 by 2020. Murray favors it, while Vance is opposed.
Whose Oxen Get Gored To Cut Debt?
The nearly-$20 trillion federal public debt was also a major focus of the debate. Vance repeatedly emphasized the need to reduce it through a combination of spending cuts, the elimination of some tax incentives, and entitlement reforms.
Since Murray was first elected to the U.S. Senate 24 years ago in 1992, the federal debt has increased by more than $15 trillion. When asked about her plan to reduce the debt, she blamed its rise on federal tax cuts and spending increases during George W. Bush’s presidential administration, including for the Iraq War.
Going forward, Murray said, “we need…a fair and balanced approach of cutting programs and having every American contribute, not just those who are working, or are seniors or retired.”
Being Ready To Foot Bills For Fighting Forest Fires
Vance and Murray also had an opportunity to address protection of U.S. Forest Service land in the state, which in 2014 and 2015 suffered severe wildfires. A quarter of the 8.1 million acres of federal forests in the state needs some restoration, according to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). In recent years the federal agency has had to engage in a practice known as “fire borrowing,” by taking funds from other parts of their budget to cover unanticipated firefighting costs.
Murray said she is currently working with other senators to secure additional funding for wildfire suppression “so we have the funds available when these fires occur.”
Vance took Murray to task for what he claims has been a reactive strategy. Rural landowners have been long advocating for better forest management practices such as fuel reduction, to help lessen the odds of severe wildfires, he added.
“They do not feel like their U.S. representatives in the Senate have been listening to them,” he said. “We need to have senators in Washington, D.C. who will focus on the entire state, including the needs of rural areas.”
Social Security Solutions
Differences between the incumbent and challenger also surfaced around Social Security system reform. Vance said he supports the recommendations of a 2010 report by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, also known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Those recommendations included gradually raising the retirement age as well as raising the payroll tax cap.
“If we don’t do these things, Social Security is going to be broke in less than 15 years,” Vance said.
Murray said she plans to introduce legislation to raise the payroll tax cap, but opposes a higher retirement age or reducing benefits.
“We need to look at our workforce policies today and how they impact Social Security, and expand it,” she said.
ACA Fixes Debated
Vance was again on the offensive and Murray on the defensive, when the subject turned to health care.
Since the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, was passed in early 2010, more Washington residents without employer healthcare have coverage through insurers in the ACA-authorized state-run marketplace. However, insurer expenses have also increased, and competition is eroding in the non-employer markets as more insurers pull out.
Murray defended her involvement in crafting ACA and said Republicans have failed to offer alternatives, other than attempts to repeal the law.
“Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” she said. “I’m willing to work with anyone from any party to say what the challenges (are) today, and how can we fix it.”
Vance also criticized fellow Republicans for not offering an alternative to Obamacare but panned the public option proposed by Obama. He said an alternative should be modeled on the Basic Health Plan (BHP), a former Washington state-subsidized health insurance program for childless adults that ended in 2014.
“Obamacare is failing,” he said. “That’s a fact.”