Senator John Thune fielded questions from fourteen citizens during his town hall in Aberdeen today. You can view most of the questions and responses, along with most of Senator Thune’s opening remarks, in this YouTube playlist consisting of 17 separate videos. I’m happy to offer fourteen of Thune’s responses in the clips below. (I missed one follow-up about the draft—Thune says no, there won’t be one, so let’s keep our fingers crossed that NSA chief H.R. McMaster keeps cleaning house and ups Trump’s meds to make sure no draft is needed.)
1. Guns and Butter: Asked what data indicate that we need to trade services for the elderly, education, and other social programs to increase military spending, Senator Thune says that if we don’t have guns, we won’t have any butter:
2. NEH, NEA, and Public Broadcasting: Asked about the cuts the Trump budget would make to the national Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Thune dodges, saying the budget has to get through Congress:
3. Federal Workforce and Pensions: Different topic, similar dodge: Thune says he doubts we’ll see the 17% cuts that the questioner says the Trump budget would wreak on federal workers and their pensions, but he doesn’t say he’ll defend federal workers and retirees from such cuts.
4. Medicaid Block Grants: Thune assures a mother that turning Medicaid into block grants won’t deny her son the assistance he receives for his developmental disabilities. Maybe her son lucks out: shifting Medicaid to block grants could deny 14.3 million to 20.5 million others of their access to Medicaid.
5. Goodbye, Filibuster; Hello, Gorsuch: Thune gives perhaps his only direct rebuttal of the day, challenging the questioner’s claim that his vote last week to change the rules to end filibusters on Supreme Court nominations to pave the way for putting Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court with fewer than 60 votes. Thune says Democrats started it in 2003 by filibustering ten Bush II judicial nominees; Republicans followed in 2013 by filibustering two of Obama’s judicial nominees, to which Democrats responded by changing the rules on filibusters for lower court nominees. Democratic Senators Kaine and Reid promised last fall to undo filibusters on Supreme Court nominees, so the change was inevitable, regardless of who won the White House and the Senate. Thune contends that the filibuster has rarely been used on Supreme Court nominees, so the repeal of its use really restores the Senate to the way things were done long before today’s partisan squabbles. [So Democrats, the lesson here: don’t squabble about procedure; just keep hammering Thune and the Trumpublicans on the real harms their policies do to rural America!]
6. Budgets vs. Continuing Resolutions: Thune says we’ll get the budget for Fiscal Year 2017 (which began over six months ago) done by the end of April… or maybe a little later.
7. More Military Spending: More guns. More bombs. Count on it.
8. Why Syria? Thune says we attacked Syria last week to send three messages: to Assad, that he better not use chemical weapons again (or what—we’ll put burn marks on another set of runways?); to our allies, that America really is ready to lead (lead where? chaos? a deeper refugee crisis which we are unwilling to ameliorate?); and to North Korea, Russia, and other provocateurs, that… well, “we’ll see what comes of it.”
9. Let the IRS Do Its Job: Thune admits that, along with his magical incantations of growth (“We must! We must! We must increase our GDP!”), it might not be a bad idea to make sure the Internal Revenue Service has the resources to collect taxes.
10. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: Thune doesn’t say kill the CFPB, but he sure wants to rein it in:
11. Dodd-Frank Overkill: Thune characterizes the CFPB and Dodd-Frank banking reforms coming out of the recession as typical “over-reaction,” “overkill,” and a “sledgehammer” that imposes “tremendous” (careful! Trump is contagious!) costs on banks and small:
12. Big Sioux? What Pollution? Darned Obama! Pressed to say how he’ll help improve water quality in the highly polluted Big Sioux River, Thune insists South Dakota is blessed with “fairly pristine” conditions relative to other places, then pivots to gripe about the discarded Obama Waters of the U.S. rule. You know, John, Obama isn’t President anymore. You are the Republican White House are going to have to start owning and fixing problems.
13. Red Tape, Wetlands, and Roads: A guy asks about cutting red tape so counties could drain wetlands and build roads faster and cheaper. The proper conservationist response is, “Hold your horses! Wetlands are good for fishing, hunting, wildlife, and water quality downstream in the Big Sioux like that lady asked about!” The John Thune response is a gentle, noncommittal ramble about making it easier to build infrastructure.
14. Debt, Depression, Doom! The last questioner raised the alarm about the $20-trillion national debt (which is over 100% of GDP but costs less than half as much to service, as a percentage of GDP, as it did during the Reagan era). The question gave Thune a chance to close with, among other things, another appeal to the Great Gods of Growth to relieve him of the burden of having to make any hard policy decisions:
The town hall showed no sign of the open outrage and disruptive protest that marked town halls in other states earlier this year. There was a brief surge of contentious yaying and booing following the question about the filibuster and Gorsuch. Otherwise, dissent took the form of tough questions about the real impacts of Trump budget cuts on South Dakota, with our senior Senator calmly avoiding taking a position either for his constituents or his President. Avoiding taking a position—that’s the kind of leadership we get from South Dakota Republicans.