Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 1:00 pm
By Terry O’Keefe, Staff Writer
MILBANK — Things are going nowhere fast in Washington, D.C., and Sen. John Thune said Monday he knows people are getting fed up.
With Congress out of session this week, the South Dakota Republican is back in the state, making stops in various communities. Monday, he spoke to about 50 people at the Milbank Visitors Center before heading off to student assemblies at Waverly-South Shore and Castlewood schools.
With Republicans and Democrats in a stand-off in Washington, Thune said it is hard to accomplish anything, but added he understands the people who elect Congress expect more than what they’ve seen in recent months.
“I understand the frustration level of the public over what’s going on in Washington,” he said.
The senator said Congress has an approval rating percentage among voters that is approaching single-digits which he said is getting down to “paid staff” levels. But he also said with the government spending about 25 percent of the entire U.S. economy, there needs to be some drastic changes.
“We appear headed for a train wreck and it’s important we get this turned around,” Thune said. “We have to get our fiscal house in order.
“The national debt is the biggest threat to national security… because when you borrow money from people, they have leverage on you.”
Thune said government spending has reached $3.6 trillion a year with revenues of only $2.3 trillion.
“Over 40 cents of every dollar being spent (by government) is borrowed,” he said.
Thune answered questions on a variety of topics ranging from the creation of a new federal farm bill to the cost of energy and what it means, specifically in a rural state like South Dakota.
“Since 2009, gas has more than doubled from $1.85 a gallon to $3.86 a gallon,” he said.
The senator pointed the finger of blame directly at Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama who he said have been consistent in blocking any new efforts for domestic energy development, including the Keystone XL pipeline that would carry Canadian crude oil through South Dakota and other states to refineries in the South.
“If we don’t get this (XL) built, (TransCanada) has made it clear they’ll go the other direction and ship it directly to China,” Thune said.
Thune said the version of a new five-year farm bill passed last week in the Senate Ag Committee will save an estimated $25 billion over its life span. Most of those savings would come from the elimination of what are known as direct and counter-cyclical payments to producers and replacing that hole in the safety net with stronger crop insurance programs.
He also said a recent proposal from the U.S. Department of Labor that would have severely restricted what type of work children could do on family farms has, for the moment, been withdrawn, but illustrates the current administration’s lack of knowledge of the reality of living in rural areas.
“This was really just kind of over the top,” Thune said, adding it appears some in Washington have too much time on their hands.
“It gets to the point where you say, ‘They can’t be serious,’ but they are,” he said. “We got it stopped, but it’s an example of people getting out of hand.”
The DOL wasn’t the only agency to come under criticism from the senator. In response to a question about the administration’s attitude toward coal-fired electric power plants and Big Stone Power Plant’s current effort to upgrade pollution controls to the tune of $500 million, he said that seems to be an ongoing theme in Washington.
“There is a movement in this administration to do away with coal-fired plants,” Thune said. “Congress is basically mathematics — you need the votes.
“We’ve tried a couple of times to slow down this over-reaching by agencies and we just don’t have the votes to do it. Coal is very important to our economy. There are other sources of energy, yes, but you have to use common sense.”
Thune was also questioned on the lack of a federal budget which he said should be automatic but just passed the three-year mark since one was in place, as well as what will happen with programs such as Medicare and Social Security.
“If you want to end Medicare as we know it today, just do nothing,” he said. “We first have to find a way to slow the growth (of expenditures) without hurting people now over 55.
“We can increase the retirement age gradually, but we have to insulate those people already retired or near retirement age.”