Congressman Jim Himes (D-CT) addressed a number of issues, both foreign and domestic, during his town hall-style meeting at Trackside Teen Center on Thursday, Jan. 21.

More than 60 people attended the event and had the opportunity to direct the evening’s conversation by asking the congressman questions.

Terrorism


Himes, a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said “it’s not an accident that we haven’t had a major attack since 9/11 in this country.

“Since 9/11, our intelligence community has spent $78 million a year,” he said. “Though you will never know the story, they are doing remarkable work disrupting terrorism.”

Although “all kinds of issues” are being raised, such as those relating to surveillance, the National Security Agency and drone strikes, said Himes, the surveillance community’s work has been “very good at disrupting coordinated, large-scale plots like we saw in Paris.”

However, he said, “what we can’t really protect competently against is what we think of as lone wolf attacks like what we saw in Boston [and] San Bernardino.”

“I wish I could tell you there was a way to monitor these threats, but there really isn’t,” he said. “There is no silver bullet against that kind of attack.”

Student loans


One topic that comes up at almost every speaking event, Himes said, is student loans.

On Thursday, a father of three told Himes how one of his sons paid $17,000 this year alone in student loan interest after going to a private school for his Ph.D. and another with a defaulted loan that he co-signed.

“I paid $9,000 on this loan and just about to settle it for another amount, but it’s going to be tough to settle. It’s outrageous what these kids have to pay,” he said.

“The student loan issue has burdened our whole family. I should be retiring but I’m still working, and it’s not only me — there are plenty of people here and all over the country. I mean, there’s $1.3 trillion in debt out there.”

Himes said he supports keeping interest rates low on student loans and said the student loan issue is a “very pervasive” one that puts “an unbelievable burden … on families and students to take on a lot of debt.”

“Fifty years ago, you didn’t need [to go to college] to be middle class,” said Himes. “Today, you need more education than that.”

Although the government does not have control over the universities and colleges, Himes said, “there are a couple things that we can do and a couple things that I’ve done.”

Keeping student loan rates low is important, said Himes, but “it doesn’t quite solve the problem.”

“If colleges and universities are increasing their tuitions 8%, 9%, 10%, 11% a year, at some point, you can’t have interest rates low enough to deal with the debt that kids have to accrue,” he said. “That, I think, leads to an important conversation — making sure those loans are repayable.”

The core problem, he said, is a tough one, which involves getting schools, particularly private universities, to “cool it” on the yearly increases. Himes said he has a bill with Senator Chris Murphy that contains “a couple ideas.”

Because most of the institutions take research dollars from the federal government and take kids who are relying on federal programs, he said, “that gives us a bit of a lever.”

“The legislation that Senator Murphy and I have put forward creates an evaluation system that actually looks at how universities and colleges are thinking about the tuition they charge, what the increases go to, and what that translates to in terms of the burden that it puts on the students,” said Himes.

“I think if we keep pressuring colleges and universities to be thoughtful about this and use the leverage we have over time, we can force down the tuition increases that they’re imposing.”

Campaign finances


A Wilton High School sophomore inquired about campaign finance laws and corruption in the system.

“Every time I vote one way, there are people who are unhappy who instantly jump to the conclusion that the only conceivable reason why I voted that way was because someone paid me to do it,” said Himes, “and that’s not a world that I’m interested in living in.”

Having watched the campaign finance system “from the inside” for seven years, Himes said, he is an optimist who believes “we have a pretty good system.”

“The one exception I make to that optimism is that money plays far too big a role in the system, and that comes in the form of wealthy people being able to contribute $30,000,000 to [a presidential] campaign, and it means that guys like me get to spend hours a day raising money as opposed to thinking about legislation and doing the work of our constituents,” said Himes, cosponsor and a proponent of three efforts to “amend the Constitution of the United States to draw a distinction between dollars and speech.”

While his colleagues are “by and large, honest and thoughtful people who will do the right thing,” Himes said, “on a margin, the temptation is there to listen to people who are capable of throwing a big fund-raiser — that’s a terrible system.”

“Rules prevent me from taking a $9 turkey sandwich from the Goldman Sachs lobbyists, but they can write a $5,000 check and I can take that,” said Himes.

“There’s a level of absurdity in the system that is really problematic, and you can count on me ... to be aggressive in doing whatever we can do to try to take money out of the system.”

Immigration


Two or three members of the audience voiced concerns, complaints and disapproval of the way the government is handling immigration and one accused the government of providing federal assistance to undocumented immigrants.

In response, Himes urged that “we be thoughtful in how we characterize people” and explained that “no undocumented alien qualifies for any federal assistance, as a matter of law.

“That doesn’t mean people can’t cheat,” he said, “but nobody can sign up for food stamps who is here illegally.”

While there is “no question that we need to control our border better than we do,” Himes said, “that’s not the only answer.

“Half the people here illegally don’t sneak across the border — they overstay their visa,” said Himes, nothing the Supreme Court will soon decide if President Barack Obama’s plan to give temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants is an overstep of his authority.

“I’m all about a discussion on how to make our borders more secure,” he said, “but let’s understand that building a really pretty wall doesn’t do the trick — it won’t address the people who overstay their visas.”