By Jean Cole
A group of 25 students gathered Wednesday in Athens to hear U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks explain how federal decisions impact local communities.
The students, who are from Athens High School and Athens Bible School, are part of the Mayors Youth Commission, which was created last August to teach students about leadership and the city, county, state and federal governments.
Brooks, a Republican representing the Fifth District of Alabama in the U.S. House of Representatives, gave students an overview of some of the duties and challenges facing the federal government, then fielded questions from the students on the fiscal cliff, proposed legislation to restrict semiautomatic weapons and deficit reduction, among others.
Mayor Ronnie Marks and the Athens City Council formed Mayors Youth Commission at the request of Jackie Warner, who is part of a career-coach mentoring program in Limestone County. After researching the matter, Warner determined many cities have created youth commissions as a way to teach its next generation of citizens about leadership skills and mechanics of government. Among the goals of the commission is to encourage local youths to return to serve their home cities and states after graduating from colleges or trade schools.
Brooks opened his speech by explaining to students that nearly every aspect of life includes federal spending, including providing health care, widening U.S. 72, building Interstate 65, regulating the Tennessee River, ensuring public education, and ensuring clean air and water through the Environmental Protection Agency.
Brooks also said the federal government must balance its presence through funding and regulation to avoid raising the costs of production to the point that foreign companies can produce and sell goods cheaper, which could force American companies to fold and workers to lose jobs. Cities, counties and states depend on the taxes generated by businesses and workers.
In addressing the federal deficit, Brooks told students that each citizen’s share of the federal debt amounts to about $53,000, and he asked the students how they intend to pay it back.
One student said, “Get a job.”
Brooks said the federal deficit was $1.1 trillion this year, making it the fourth-consecutive annual federal deficit, and the total federal deficit is $16 trillion. He also schooled the students in an important lesson about interest on borrowed money.
“Our interest on that debt is $220 billion per year,” Brooks said, noting that borrowers are currently seeing historically low interest rates.
The interest alone on the federal debt could fund “12 to 13 NASA budgets,” he said.
He said the federal government should reduce spending rather than raise taxes in order to address the budget deficit.
“The more we pay in taxes the less powerful families are,” he said. “Giving up dollars makes families weaker.”
He said the federal government should address the deficit, not simply “kick the can down the road” to future generations to solve. For examples, he cited the current year’s budget request for $60 billion to assist victims of Hurricane Sandy and the $4 trillion needed over 10 years to deal with the “fiscal cliff.”
Brooks said he opposes spending for Hurricane Sandy “because it is not paid for,” meaning there is no reduction in spending elsewhere in the budget to offset the spending for Sandy relief. (Brooks encouraged Alabama residents to apply for federal FEMA aid following the April 27, 2011, tornado outbreak that devastated parts of the state, including North Alabama.)
For him to support the Sandy relief in the budget, he said lawmakers would have to reduce elsewhere, such as cutting foreign aid or “stopping illegal aliens from spending $4 billion from falsely claiming tax credits for kids they don’t have.”
He said his opposition to the Sandy relief proposal was that it is not paid for elsewhere in the budget.
Brooks told the students it is “financially irresponsible” to increase the debt by $4 trillion over the next 10 years to deal with the “fiscal cliff.”
The phrase “fiscal cliff” was first used by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke to describe American’s looming financial crisis, though Brooks told the students Wednesday the media coined it to sell magazines and newspapers.
In February 2012, Bernanke told Congress: “Under current law, on Jan. 1, 2013, there’s going to be a massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.”
Q & A
Following his overview of how decisions by the federal government affect local communities, Brooks answered the students’ questions.
One student asked the congressman what he thought of U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal to restrict the sale and ownership of semiautomatic guns like the ones used a month ago in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“I’ve heard press about it but I haven’t seen a bill,” Brooks said.
The proposal would ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons, strengthen the existing assault-weapons ban and tighten regulations for grandfathered weapons. The student had done his homework and knew the details of the proposal.
“I’d vote against it,” Brooks said, citing the Second Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing citizens the right to bear arms.
The congressman said the Second Amendment was passed to “allow citizens to rise up if the central government no longer guaranteed its liberties and rights,” which are granted under the Constitution.
“All of the positives in the Bill of Rights have a negative,” Brooks said, mentioning the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. That freedom requires citizens to also be tolerant of speech, religion or activities that may be offensive to them.
Another student asked Brooks if he believed President Barrack Obama would create more options for dealing with the budget deficit.
The congressman went afield in answering this question.
He said President Obama “does did not care about the deficit in the way I do,” noting that he, the congressman, sees the deficit as the “greatest national security threat.”
Brooks also said President Obama is more of a “socialist” whereas he believes in “individual responsibility and free enterprise.”