5:59 pm Jul. 20, 2011
Against a political backdrop of continuing negotiations over the federal debt ceiling, Representative Charles Rangel spent an hour talking with constituents from his Harlem district in an online “town hall” yesterday.
Sitting in his office in Washington D.C., the 81-year old congressman spoke over a video feed with moderator Sergio Lilavois, the founder of social networking site WeHarlem. He accepted written questions and comments, and question from callers. According to Hannah Kim, Rangel’s communications director, a little over a hundred people participated.
Rangel kicked off the meeting with a shot at Republicans, who he said don’t understand the worldwide consequences of opposing plans to raise the amount of money the government can borrow.
“A handful of people don’t care about that,” he said. “One, they hate the president. Two, they just want to cut, they want to protect the corporations. It’s embarrassing what we’re going through now. But I can give assurances that the debt ceiling will be raised, and the only people making a sacrifice are not the wealthy people that the Republicans refuse to even consider having them to make an inconvenience rather than pay higher taxes.
“The only people that lose out are the vulnerable people. I made appeals to spiritual leaders—whether Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Gentile, Hindu, Mormon, Muslim—that for us to put on the chopping block the poorest of Americans, the sick, the young people, to deny education and houses, what we need here are jobs, and we’re down here debating constitutional amendments.”
Charles Rangel also took questions from callers on the Libya campaign, free trade, mental health programs and economic development.
There were some minor technical issues, as Rangel yelled for someone to raise the speakerphone volume, and Lilavois, the moderator, asked callers to mute their phones to avoid feedback.
A small-business owner, Eula Young, called in to ask Rangel how she could affordably expand her home business into a commercial space. She asked the moderator if he could hear her.
“Hi Eula, I can hear you too, here in Washington!” Rangel interjected.
He answered her question by acknowledging rising rents in the area, but pointing to work being done by Empowerment Zones, the Harlem Business Association and the Upper Manhattan Chamber of Commerce.
“Please get in touch with my office if you don’t know where these offices are that I mentioned, but there’s a lot of assistance that we can give you, but never give up and don’t give out,” Rangel said to her.
Rangel then answered a question from a caller Yvonne Miller about Libya. She had reservations about America’s military support for the rebels against Muammar Khadafy.
“I feel very, very uncomfortable, especially as a lawyer, with not knowing the facts that causes a person to be assassinated,” Rangel said. “And that is what our mission was, as it relates to Osama bin Laden, that he should be killed. Well, terrorists like this don’t get much sympathy, but it just doesn’t sound moral and it doesn’t sound American that we can determine which leaders die and which people live. And so now it’s Khadafy, and that’s on the list, and people say that we have to kill him. Well, even if you accepted that, and I don’t, what about all of the innocent people that are getting killed and lives that are getting injured by drones and machines that are paid for by the American taxpayer?
“We are going through a pretty immoral period in our lifetime and with our country, and I’d really wish that this president would allow us to believe that we’ve got to end violence and military intrusion as our main way to present or create democracies.”
Responding to questions about economic initiatives to impact his district, Rangel said the booming tourism and restaurant scene in Harlem is helping things. He also implored individual job-seekers to lean on their social circles.
“In terms of actually getting to work, I’d just like to throw in here, that reports have indicated that the best way to get a job is to talk to people who are working and ask whether there are any opencies—vacancies where they are working. It’s embarrassing sometimes to talk about ‘not fully employed.’ But if you really want to work, you’ve got to let people know that we’re looking for work, and that’s one way to do it.”
To another caller:
“If you know someone in your family or friends that say they’re working, and their business is thriving, the best way to get a job is to have that person on the inside, to help you get inside.”
Referring to the introduction on July 15 of the Republican-backed “Cut, Cap and Balance” bill in the House—it’s a symbolic measure that would raise the debt limit in exchange for setting absolute restrictions on spending— Rangel said it was one of the most embarrassing experiences that he’s ever had as a member of Congress. (The House voted to pass the bill shortly after the forum ended.)
“It’s a gimmick,” he said. “It’s merely a way to give the president a hard time. Instead of finding a way that we can raise revenue to help reduce expenses through cuts and through revenue. And it’s a gimmick that’s happening. They know they can’t have this become law. And what it amounts to is trying to make constitutional changes and hold the president hostage in saying if we allow you to increase the debt ceiling, you have to come back two or three times a year to justify spending. Please don’t think that this is going to become law. I know that sooner or later—and I hope it’s sooner —we’ll give the president the authority to increase the debt ceiling. But these political games are painful for people that want jobs and they don’t want rhetoric.”
In keeping with the “online” theme of the event, Rangel repeatedly urged participants to visit his website and Facebook page, and to follow him on Twitter.
Before ending the conference, Rangel spoke at length framing the cuts to the poor as not an economic or political questions, but moral ones.
“Just don’t stand by, ask your rabbi, ask your priest, ask your minister, ask your pastor. And they’re writing in. What are they doing to convince their congressman to do the right thing? And I think I’m preaching to the choir, because you people who are participating in this show, with the guidance of Sergio, cared enough to get involved and I want to thank you for it.
”We all are missionaries, we all do the best we can, but please reach out there and tell them: this is more than just debt ceiling. This is a handful of people full with hatred that all want to get rid of the president at the expense of entitlement programs that have been created—some since Franklin Roosevelt—they’ve been after that since then. They’ve never supported Social Security. They never supported Medicare. They never supported Medicaid. So, in order to preserve these programs, the people have to be heard.”
As the call ended, Rangel ended with a shrug. Right before the feed stopped, there was a sigh of relief and light applause came from off-camera.
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