WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County residents of all stripes and party affiliations streamed into the American Legion Post #199 on Monday morning to clear the air with their congressman.
U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, (R-6th District), has been making the rounds through his district to meet his constituents, update them on his time in Washington as a freshman congressman, and hear the problems that face them back home.
Cline emphasized the contrast between his time in the state legislature — as a member of the majority — to his brief stint in Washington as a member of the minority amid fierce partisan battles playing out in the media.
“I can talk to you about what I’m seeing in Washington and boy, it has been quite the education,” Cline said. “Nothing prepared me for what I encountered when I got to Washington. The dysfunction and the gridlock, it is incredible.”
That gridlock, Cline said, has as much to do with politicians talking over and past each other to score fast political points as the issues they take up. Members of both parties, he said, are busy trying to stuff as much as they can into bills, attaching large amendments to what would otherwise be bipartisan efforts, that little is getting done.
For his part, he said, he has tried to build bridges and relationships with his colleagues who are Democrats.
One hurdle to bipartisanship, one constituent said, is the president, who regularly takes to Twitter to express his disdain for the Democrats opposing his administration.
Other constituents followed up with a flurry of questions about the Mueller report, a two-part investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and potential obstruction of justice by the Trump administration, and Attorney General William Barr and what Cline – a member of the House Judiciary Committee – thought about Barr and other Trump administration officials refusing to comply with subpoenas his committee issued.
“I voted with the full House to release the full Mueller report when it was received,” Cline said. “The [Department of Justice] did that with the redactions. I would like to see that without the redactions so we can release it.”
“I voted against holding Attorney General Barr in contempt because the subpoena for him was for the full Mueller report, including grand jury testimony.”
The federal rules of criminal procedure do not allow grand jury testimony to be released, Cline said, which led him to say he believed the House and Senate Judiciary committees were asking Barr to commit a crime.
Congress has the power to amend the rules of procedure but Cline said that option hasn’t been discussed.
“I think the protection of the individuals who have testified before grand juries is paramount, and I don’t think Congress has examined removing that protection,” he said. “My understanding is they don’t even have to remove the 6(e) authority. They can just go pass an impeachment resolution that includes the ability to subpoena grand jury testimony and they get it.”
While questions about Barr, the Mueller report and possible impeachment proceedings dominated much of the conversation, some questions hit closer to home in the county.
Some constituents asked Cline about the tariffs imposed on China and Mexico that are hurting agricultural production — a leading source of income for Shenandoah County — as well as how he plans to facilitate agriculture worker programs for immigrants.
“The ag worker programs are critical,” he said. “We have to make sure we have the necessary labor coming into this country. But what we have is a broken process where it takes too long to get approval. The time you’re often permitted to stay is too short.”
Barriers to entry and short leashes lead to people coming in and violating agreements or coming in illegally, Cline said. In order to have a more successful farm worker program, and immigration policy as a whole, interim steps have to be considered by both parties. Trying to tackle the entire immigration debate at once, he said, will take too long and the crisis at the border needs to be addressed immediately.
“Let’s get money to the border to provide additional beds,” he said, “to provide additional judges to get the process back on track.”
Tariffs are the second piece of the agricultural puzzle Cline and others in Washington are trying to sort through. Millions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese — and soon-to-be Mexican — goods have forced the Trump administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture to dole out millions of dollars in subsidies to struggling farmers.
Historically, levying tariffs was the job of Congress but more recently, presidents have taken the reins of conducting international trade agreements.
Cline said it would be “too cumbersome” for Congress to negotiate with China, and it is better to have an individual — the president — lead the talks.
“The tariffs are a short-term effort to rectify trade imbalances with countries,” he said. “This president has used tariffs as a tool, and most of us are prepared to give it time to see if it works. I am not a fan of long-term tariffs. I am a free trade advocate. I don’t view them as a long-term solution but in the short term I see some movement and some of them working.”