U.S. Reps. Dave Brat, R-7th, and A. Donald McEachin, D-4th, shared their ideas for boosting entrepreneurship and economic mobility Thursday night during a forum in Richmond sponsored by the Urban League Young Professionals of Greater Richmond.
About 80 people attended the conversation at the downtown office of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, which focused on promoting dialogue about economic freedom.
While some in the audience occasionally interrupted the representatives’ answers — Brat’s far more often than McEachin’s — the congressmen treated each other cordially and stressed that the Virginia delegation gets along well, despite philosophical differences.
T. Otey Smith, a principal of RLJ Equity Partners, based in Bethesda, Md., moderated the discussion. (Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television, is founder and chairman of The RLJ Cos.)
Smith said at the outset that between 2005 and 2014, the annual incomes of 80 percent of Americans went down or remained flat. At the same time, “the cost of maintaining a middle-class lifestyle increased,” Smith said.
Brat was first elected in 2014 to represent the 7th District, which includes western Henrico County and northern Chesterfield County, as well as Powhatan, Nottoway and Amelia counties.
Brat noted that wages have been flat for 30 years and said generating economic growth is key.
In discussing how to generate free markets, entrepreneurship and economic freedom, “It’s hard to get freedom when you increase the size and scope of the federal government,” he said. “That doesn’t mean you’re anti-government,” he added.
Extensive federal, state and local regulations make it hard for a young person to start a business, Brat said, adding that schools must do more to educate students about business. He said keys to developing economic opportunity include free markets, open access, equality for everyone under the law and “education, education, education.”
McEachin was first elected in 2016 to represent the 4th District, which includes the cities of Richmond and Petersburg, as well as southern Chesterfield and eastern Henrico.
“Being in the minority” as a Democrat in the U.S. House, “I’m playing a lot of defense,” McEachin said, noting his opposition to President Donald Trump’s proposed cut in funding for Pell Grants — federal subsidies for students with financial need.
McEachin said he is backing a national service bill, under which the government would help send to college or trade school young people who serve the country — either in the military, as a teacher or as a public safety officer.
He said he also is trying to improve rural broadband, which he called vital for businesses and for students who need to do their homework. “If you don’t have broadband, you can forget bringing jobs in,” McEachin said.
Brat, a member of the Budget Committee, said economic growth will help the middle class. He noted that Presidents John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, and Ronald Reagan, a Republican, boosted economic growth through tax cuts.
McEachin said “the so-called supply side tax cuts that we are going to be debating are just a formula for another bust.”
McEachin said he was shocked when he joined of the House Armed Services Committee. “You don’t know how many wars we are fighting across the globe,” McEachin said. He added: “The one thing you do not do is go to war and cut taxes at the same time.”
The moderator asked how health care affects economic mobility and how the issue will play out in Congress.
McEachin said Democrats were “more than prepared” to try to fix problems with the Affordable Care Act.
“Obamacare didn’t do everything right, but all the problems in the health care system were not created by Obamacare, either,” he said.
The challenge with the health care system is making sure that people have access to it and making sure it can be affordable, he said.
One possible move to help fix Obamacare would be to let anyone between the ages of 54 and 64 buy into Medicare, McEachin said.
“That then makes the private market a lot healthier” and “makes those insurance premiums a lot better,” he said.
McEachin said the plan that House GOP leaders came up with to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act is dead on arrival in the Senate.
When the moderator asked for his take on the issue, Brat said, “Obamacare is in the ditch right now.”
He said it paid sole attention to coverage at the outset and paid no attention to price, so “prices have gone up 105 percent under Obamacare.”
Brat said the country is now putting $20 trillion in debt onto the next generation. He said that number is small compared with $100 trillion in collective unfunded liabilities promised to the next generation for Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, President George W. Bush’s prescription drug benefit and interest on the debt. He said Medicare and Social Security are on track to be insolvent in 2034.
“We’re $100 trillion light … because the federal government runs those systems,” Brat said. “Politicians are not good at running things,” he said, adding: “Let’s bring that power down to the state level.”
State officials “are all elected by you and they’re closer to you and the localities are much closer to you," Brat said. "You can get at them. You have a hard time getting at the swamp” in Washington.
Brat said Obamacare is “a total train wreck.” He said prices are “through the roof,” that “small businesses can’t hire” and “all the big insurance companies are leaving the states.”
While the Congressional Budget Office says an estimated 23 million fewer people would have health care by 2026 under the GOP plan that passed the House, many people covered now under Obamacare cannot use it because the deductibles are so high, Brat said.
“The problem is price,” he said. “We’ve all failed on that. It’s a bipartisan disaster.”
Unless the price comes down, Brat said, “I don’t see how you solve the senior question – I don’t see how you solve any of the questions going forward."
Points of agreement
McEachin and Brat stressed that members of Virginia's congressional delegation meet routinely and can work together on a number of issues, such as trying to get rural broadband. McEachin noted that even though Essex Village is not in his district, Brat has agreed to work with him to help address problems at the Section 8 housing complex in Henrico where officials say a pregnant woman recently fell from a balcony.
AJ Brewer, who owns Brewer’s Cafe, a coffee shop in Manchester, attended Thursday's discussion with his 2-year-old son, Parker.
“I thought that was a nice conversation to have,” Brewer said. “We’ve got to have more conversations. I don’t know if we’ll ever change anybody’s mind on either side, but the cooperation is a must.”