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Unlike many of his congressional colleagues who have been greeted rudely by constituents in the wake of recent GOP-proposed spending cuts and suggested revisions to Medicare, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence on Wednesday spoke for more than an hour with a well-mannered crowd of some 100 area residents gathered at Decatur's Riverside Center.
Pence, R-6th, opened with some brief introductory comments about recent efforts in the Republican-controlled House to curb federal spending before opening the floor to questions.
He said the concerns about which he is hearing most from constituents are about jobs, spending and gas prices. "And they're all related to the spending crisis," said the veteran congressman. He said the weak U.S. dollar, caused by the nation's $14 trillion debt, has weakened the dollar and, in turn, caused commodity prices to rise.
In the days leading up to a threatened shutdown of the federal government earlier this month, Pence was one of Washington's leading advocates for the Republican budget which proposed $175 billion in domestic budget cuts over the next 12 months.
On Wednesday he reaffirmed his vow to vote against "any increase in the debt ceiling that does not contain real and meaningful spending cuts."
Among the more controversial portions of the GOP budget plan is a proposal that would require the next generation of senior citizens to obtain Medicare vouchers — sending beneficiaries to private plans and limiting the amount of federal funding — to pay for a portion of their medical care. Many experts have claimed the move, which would affect all citizens now aged 54 and younger, would lead to more costly and less effective health care for seniors.
"No one 55 or older will experience any change" to their current Medicare coverage, Pence said. "But Medicare is scheduled to go broke in nine years, and this (suggested GOP approach) will preserve the program for future generations."
Pence termed entitlement programs such as Medicare and Medicaid as "the greatest threat there is to those under the age of 40." He said Medicare and Medicaid in their current forms "threaten the economic vitality of future generations" and are currently "fraught with waste, fraud and abuse." He recommended states be put in charge of Medicaid programs.
Questions posed by audience members ranged from income tax inequities to military funding to fears that America is becoming a socialist nation.
Decatur resident Randy Hisner asked Pence why the emphasis has been placed on trimming entitlements when the wealthiest Americans continue to pay little or no federal income tax. "Why is it socialism to ask rich persons to pay a little more?" asked Hisner.
Pence responded that "raising taxes on anybody is a profoundly bad idea in this economy." The congressmen said he would favor a flat tax rate and the elimination of existing tax loopholes "to encourage economic growth."
He drew applause from many in the room by calling for a flat tax rate, adding, "I don't think there's anyone who is not willing to pay their fair share of the pie."
Another audience member suggested that federal programs, once established, will never be eliminated. "I'll admit I'm a cynic, but are you aware of any federal department that has ever been shuttered?" he asked.
"No, but we're going to have to think of some," Pence replied. "We've got to reform some of these programs now, and I think this Congress is going to be tough. Republicans need to fight hard on this debt ceiling vote to establish some meaningful spending cuts."
Pence this month had advocated a government shutdown to stress the need for substantial cuts. But a military mother in the audience asked the congressman how he could support a shutdown when it meant members of the armed forces would go without pay.
"We (Republicans) voted to fully fund the military through the end of this year," Pence replied. "But the president was unwilling to sign it. I totally agree with you; I will never ever jeopardize our military."
Another veteran grilled Pence of funding for the Veterans Administration, saying cuts to VA facilities "are an offense to all veterans."
Pence said that during his tenure in Congress he has voted for "two of the largest increases in VA funding in history. And be assured, I'm on your team. I'll be fighting along with you."
The final question posed to Pence as he exited the room on Wednesday concerned his political future. Widely believed to be preparing for an Indiana gubernatorial campaign, he remained vague about his future plans.
"Stay tuned," Pence said.