GROTON — President Donald Trump was wrong to declare a state of emergency to build a $5.7 billion wall on the Mexican border, Rep. Tom Reed told Groton residents, but added Trump does have the lawful authority.
An authority Reed would like to restrict in the future.
The first town hall event in Groton to draw Reed (R-Corning), a five-term incumbent, attracted more than 40 people Saturday. It was a mostly polite, sometimes boisterous and once-heckled discussion of federal policy and constituents’ expectations.
“I believe the authority is there,” Reed said of the emergency declaration, which allows the president to pull funds from defense contracts to build the wall, after Congress approved a bill authorizing only $1.4 billion for the project. “How do we rescind that authority? It’s a fundamental problem and it has to stop.”
Congress has ceded too much authority to the president, Reed said, a trend he hopes to reverse by working with the Problem Solvers Caucus, a 48-member bipartisan House group of which Reed is a co-chairman.
One Republican and 225 of 235 Democrats — a majority of the entire House — have sponsored a reasolution, to be voted on Tuesday, to block the declaration. The resolution, if also passed in the Senate, would likely to face a Trump veto.
However, Reed said he believes the president has legal authority to make the declaration, and Congress doesn’t yet have the authority to deny it.
“You have the right to say no,” said Barbara Regenspan of Ithaca. “You have the power now.”
Reed discussed other issues, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing, sometimes finding middle ground:
On federal spending, and tax evasion: “I support the tax cut,” Reed said, although Dorothy Pomponio of Groton said the $1.5 trillion cut gave most savings, 83 percent, to corporations and the wealthy.
Reed said the cut led to an increase inspending — the Gross Domestic Product grew about 3 percent in 2018, on par with most of the past five years except a slightly dip in 2016.
However, growth is slowing, to 1.4 percent at the end of 2018, according to the Federal Reserve in Atlanta.
The cuts came as the Trump administration increased spending 10.7 percent since 2016 to $4.2 trillion, and the budget deficit has gone up 47 percent to $980 billion.
“I don’t think you can call that tax bill fiscally conservative,” Pomponio said after the meeting, complaining that Reed did not address another concern: a 30 percent budget cut for the Internal Revenue Service and the loss of $125 billion in tax revenue to evasion.
On Social Security: “I’m committed to make sure it’s here for years to come,” Reed told Nancy Crawford of Freeville.
“People on Social Security cannot afford to live with a 20 or 25 percent reduction in benefits, he said, but added: “I think the solution is somewhere between a tax issue and benefits.” Social Security may need to reduce benefits, while increasing its revenue.
A suggestion to eliminate the cap on Social Security withholding has a flip side, he said: Benefits are tied to contributions, so the very-rich who contribute at the cap would see greater benefits.
On the tax cuts for the wealthy: Regenspan questioned why so much of the tax cut went to the wealthy, who during the Eisenhower administration of the 1950s paid nearly 90 percent of their income in income taxes.
“That was a Republican president with much greater credibility than our current president,” she said.
However, Reed replied, the very-wealthy were also given greater tax breaks. There was a larger gap between the marginal rate — the raw percentage — and the effective rate — the amount they actually paid.
“I think the better policy is to get the marginal rate and the effective rate as close as possible,” he said.
On detaining children of illegal immigrants: John Gaines of Groton quizzed Reed on whether he knew how many immigrant children the federal government was holding and where they were. Reed did not know how many were in the state, nor whether any were in his district, which stretches from Groton to Elmira and then west along the Southern Tier.
Numbers vary, depending on the source and time. In June, the Department of Health and Human Services reported the federal government held more than 11,500 children. Of those, 2,342 had been separated from their parents.
“Are we producing MS-13 members in our own camps?” Gaines asked. “I believe the federal government is making things worse for the kids in detention.”
The exchange sparked a cluster of comments and outbursts about people-smuggling, entry via the Southern border or separate ports of call, such as airports and sailing ports, and whether a wall would divert illegal immigrants to ports of call.
“How do you mitigate the risk?” Reed asked. “They’re children; they aren’t dangerous, Tom,” a heckler called out.
Immigration reform might ease the problem, Gaines said.
“That makes perfect sense to me,” Reed replied. “Hopefully, that’s where we can find some common ground.”