NEW IBERIA — This time, the Washington lawmaker didn’t flee the room.
U.S. Rep. Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre, engaged with citizens for two hours Thursday night during a sometimes spirited town hall meeting — it was his first — that mostly used a question-and-answer format. He remained after the session ended, too, meeting crowd participants and taking questions from the news media.
Higgins’ effort was in marked contrast to U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy’s town hall meeting Feb. 24 in Breaux Bridge. There, protesters opposed to President Donald Trump’s policies at times disrupted the meeting, growing especially angry when Cassidy consumed much of the scheduled hour with mundane announcements. When the hour was over, Cassidy was spirited out a back door.
On Thursday night, Higgins, who represents the 3rd Congressional District, which includes Iberia Parish, spoke in an outdoor pavilion setting that accommodated a crowd that, at times, swelled to about 150. At the outset, he acknowledged not everyone in the crowd would agree with him — some carried signs that stated specific political positions and social concerns — but he encouraged people to speak their minds.
“We are Americans one and all,” he said. “Our country was founded on healthy and vigorous debate.”
Higgins told the crowd he was a “constitutionalist,” holding beliefs that govern his positions on many issues.
For example, he said, he believes:
- Corporations have rights to donate freely to political campaigns.
- The Interior Department abused the coal industry by over-regulation.
- Trump should not be mandated to publicly reveal his income tax information.
Those positions didn’t generate unanimous crowd approval. But he might have surprised some in attendance by:
- Declaring support for investigation into Russia’s role, if any, in the Trump election.
- Supporting a national health insurance plan that protects people with pre-existing medical conditions.
- Decrying the nation’s prison system as “a national disgrace” for abuses of prisoners.
Higgins had frequent and sometimes sharp exchanges with crowd members who questioned Republican lawmakers’ intent to end the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Higgins said Congress would end the ACA, or Obamacare, and replace it with leaner, more efficient legislation that would provide more insurance options to consumers. He also defended citizens’ rights to not buy insurance if they did not want it.
“That’s not health insurance,” he said of the ACA and what he said were high deductibles. “That’s theft on American soil.”
But he said any final health care bill should protect people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Nor did he oppose Medicaid expansion, which he said represented decisions taken by individual, sovereign states. Government closest to the people is best, he insisted.
Pressed further about why Congress should repeal rather than refine Obamacare, Higgins said Obamacare is “repealing itself,” collapsing as insurers flee the program.
Higgins made several references to the U.S. debt, some $20 trillion, and the pressure that fiscal load is imposing on the country. Debt service is about $250 billion a year, he said, which increases the demand for Congress to balance the budget. It is Congress, not the president, who has final say on the budget, he added.
Despite pressure on Social Security and Medicare, he assured one questioner that he would always “stand for the elderly.”
Although the crowd seem to include many supporters, a large number of people present represented opposition to the Trump administration and conservative principles. Some sparred verbally with the freshman congressman, who moved comfortably before and through the crowd.
David Levy of New Iberia was one of those. He insisted Trump should get congressional approval to launch missile attacks; Higgins defended the president’s right to oversee the military.
But after the meeting,Levy, who remained dissatisfied with Higgins’ answers, said he was “impressed” with the congressman. He was especially pleased the Higgins said he extends himself in efforts to meet Democrats in Congress.