October 27, 1996 in Nation/World

The Candidates Unplugged: Nethercutt Vs. Olson Freed From TV’s Sound-Bite Approach, Rivals Quietly Clash In S-R Meeting Room

By The Spokesman-Review
 

George Nethercutt and Judy Olson came armed for their debate at The Spokesman-Review with well-filled folders.

It was late in the campaign, after a string of formal debates and forums.

The two candidates for Eastern Washington’s congressional seat clearly did not hold each other in high regard.

The newspaper offered them a chance to discuss issues without some of the rigid time constraints of their previous matchups, and both campaigns agreed.

A few minutes after Olson and Nethercutt took seats next to each other at a large oak conference table, the paperwork began to flow.

Olson brought stapled packets of paper to bolster her claim that the freshman Republican voted to cut Medicare.

Nethercutt produced stacks of photocopied position papers from the Olson campaign, and suggested his Democratic challenger and her staff were either “lying” or uninformed.

He spread the papers over the conference table and asked her: Do you stand by your position papers? “Yes, I will,” she replied.

But the bill her position paper claimed was a change in pension rules was really a public works bill, he said. It could be “a typo,” she replied.

Nethercutt said her claim that he voted to change the Brady Bill was untrue because Congress hasn’t voted on the Brady Bill in the last two years.

But he voted for a crime bill that proposed eliminating the waiting period, she argued.

“You have opposed the Brady Bill, and I believe that stands on itself,” Olson said. “I believe that the intent there is very accurate and represents a difference of opinion between yourself and myself.”

“So it is intent, and not the truth that matters?” he shot back.

Just minutes into a debate that would last nearly two hours, it was clear neither candidate would give ground on any point.

They disagreed on Medicare and farm policy, on education and school vouchers.

In a rare moment of agreement, both said they have supported so-called takings proposals, which require the government to pay landowners if their property loses value due to new regulations.

Olson, who spent most of the debate sitting rigidly straight in her chair, often responded to specific questions with generalities.

Nethercutt, leaning forward to answer questions and tapping the oak table between them to punctuate key points, sometimes offered so many details he had to be cut off by the moderator. He personalized issues with references to his mother, who is on Medicare, or his teenage children.

The differences in the candidates were evident even in the way they hedged their answers. Yes or no, they were asked, should bluegrass farmers be allowed to burn their fields after harvest?

“That’s not a yes or no question,” Olson replied, explaining grass farmers grow an extremely beneficial crop and need more research to find alternatives to burning.

“Yes and no,” said Nethercutt. He would allow burning in sparsely populated areas in the region, but oppose it in areas near Spokane and other cities.

Here’s a look at the issues the two candidates addressed in their exclusive Spokesman-Review debate:

Urban issues

When it came to local problems, the candidates offered few Spokane-specific solutions.

In fact, neither candidate knew the county’s median family income is about $33,000.

“I think that the median income is about $25,000 for the average family,” Nethercutt said.

“I don’t know exactly what the median income is, but it’s well below the national average,” Olson said. “I’m thinking it’s around $17,000, but I may be mistaken.”

Olson came close to guessing what percentage of Spokane’s children live in poverty - 22 percent.

“One out of four children here is considered to be in poverty by our own U.S. government,” Olson said.

Nethercutt didn’t know. “At what level do you decide someone lives in poverty?” he said.

The two candidates turned away from talk about homegrown ills; instead they offered national cures that would eventually trickle down to Spokane’s residents.

“I voted numerous times to balance the federal budget and reduce the cost of government,” said Nethercutt. Those votes “get more people earning more money and keeping more money in their pockets.”

He also introduced a bill to allow families to deduct Social Security and payroll taxes from their income taxes - but it never came to a vote.

Olson countered that Nethercutt voted to eliminate the earned income tax credit - “one of the best features that assists the working poor,” she said, adding her opponent also voted against increasing the minimum wage.

“I think that it is very, very important to recognize that as we move from welfare to work … we need to provide public sector jobs,” said Olson.

The two traded numbers about who benefited from the tax cuts Nethercutt supported.

“Mr. Nethercutt has talked about tax cuts, but indeed the tax cuts that he has proposed and supported … nearly 50 percent of them would have gone to people earning over $100,000,” Olson said.

Her opponent disagreed.

“The tax cuts going to help the people are middle class tax cuts, not tax cuts for the wealthy as Mrs. Olson cites,” Nethercutt said. “These are people earning $30,000, $40,000 a year, who make $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000 a year.

“That’s going to help families with kids.”

- Kristina Johnson

Medicare and welfare

No issue has shaped the congressional race more than Medicare reform. It has been the subject of 30-second campaign commercials and 60-second summaries at scores of candidate forums.

The nation’s multibillion-dollar health-care program for senior citizens is going broke, Nethercutt and Olson agreed. It spends millions more each day on services for seniors than it takes in by taxing workers.

“To do nothing is to ruin the system,” Nethercutt said.

“We need to take some dramatic steps to resolve this issue,” Olson said.

They sharply disagreed, however, on the Republicans’ unsuccessful plan to fix the program.

That proposal, which Nethercutt supported, restricted the rate of growth, currently estimated to rise 11 percent a year, to about 7 percent, over the next five years. During that time, the number of beneficiaries will continue to grow.

Nethercutt was asked how he would make up the difference without cutting services.

Some savings would come from cutting waste and abuse, he said. But the lion’s share would come from giving seniors more health-care choices, through health maintenance organizations, medical savings accounts and plans with different deductibles. The options would be voluntary, and there would be no savings if everyone kept the current plan, he acknowledged.

“But who would want to?” he added. “In the competitive world of delivery of health services, there would be greater options, not fewer options. So you can get more for your money.”

Olson said she would put a priority on maintaining the services seniors have come to expect, and noted health costs in general are rising much faster than inflation. Without offering specifics, she said a solution should be crafted by Congress after detailed discussions.

“It needs to involve a number of health-care providers, nursing homes, hospitals, doctors and senior citizens,” she said. “We need to outline a plan that is going to be sustainable and workable for a number of years, not just put a Band-Aid on the hemorrhage for the next five to six years.”

The two also disagreed sharply on the new welfare reform law, which eliminates some long-standing programs, such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children and Food Stamps, and gives the money to the states in large chunks, known as block grants.

Olson said she has reservations about giving the money without more direction from the federal government. “Some states would take care of the people who are moving from welfare to work and offer encouragement, and others would not.”

She also questioned whether smaller and rural communities would have jobs available.

Nethercutt supported the reforms, and said he wouldn’t push for further changes next year.

“I’m not against block grants, in general,” he said. “I’m willing to let this existing program have a chance to survive and see what the states can do and put great pressure on the legislatures to do well.”

- Jim Camden

Education

Nethercutt would abolish the U.S. Department of Education.

The bureaucracy, he said, strangles school districts with too many rules and the department costs taxpayers too much money in overhead.

Olson would keep the department to maintain the country’s commitment to public schools.

It’s easy to see that Nethercutt and Olson view education through distinctly different eyes.

Olson is a staunch supporter of the current public school system. “It is truly the best investment we can make in the future of this country,” she said.

Nethercutt said it’s time to rethink how this country educates children. Dismantling the federal education bureaucracy, and giving its responsibilities to other federal departments, is a good start, he said.

Money that’s passed out through some 241 federal programs, along with federal rules, could be given directly to states and local schools, Nethercutt said.

“The heavy hand of the federal government that says do it our way or else is not helpful,” he said.

Local school leaders agree that federal mandates are burdensome, such as broad requirements for placing disabled children in regular classrooms.

Over the past two years, Nethercutt earned a zero rating from the National Education Association on 22 votes in Congress, but he’s not troubled by the union’s view of him.

“The big (union) bosses don’t support me,” he said. “They are the ones who make the ratings.”

Olson said Nethercutt voted to cut education programs, but did nothing to eliminate the federal mandates he criticizes.

On other issues, Nethercutt supports a pilot voucher program to make federal tax money available for students going to private schools in Washington, D.C.

Republicans call the support “scholarships,” which offer up to $1,500 a year for a student in a private high school.

Olson opposes publicly funded vouchers to pay for private education. It reduces the amount of money going to public schools, she said, leaving that system with the costly and difficult job of educating the poor and disabled.

Nethercutt supports voluntary prayer in schools.

Olson said she believes in the separation of church and state, and that means prayer is not appropriate in the classroom.

She also supports the extension of the Family Leave Act to give parents time off from work to attend studentteacher conferences and “flexible time” so they can take their children to school on the first day of classes.

“I can certainly sympathize, especially with single parents,” she said.

Nethercutt opposes a change in the law. “I don’t disapprove of the concept, but I’d rather have these things worked out privately,” he said.

- Mike Prager

Agriculture

Two years ago, Nethercutt and the Republican Party campaigned for revolutionary changes to the nation’s agricultural policy.

Nethercutt, an attorney, delivered by helping write the landmark Federal Agriculture Improvement Reform Act of 1996, a law that eventually will end 60 years of taxpayersupported farm subsidies.

Olson in 1994 campaigned for incumbent Tom Foley, who helped craft the policy of production controls that the Republicans threw out.

When Foley lost, so did Olson. Just as the Garfield farmer was elected president of the National Association of Wheat Growers, the nation’s top wheat farming lobby, her best ally in Congress was gone.

When Nethercutt took office, he hired Oakesdale farmer Jack Silzel and assembled a task force of Fifth District producers to advise him on agriculture policy. Olson was not named to the group.

“I’ve voted very closely with the American farmer and, certainly, Fifth District farmers,” Nethercutt said. “I’m doing what they want me to do and it is the right thing to do.”

Replacing a program that paid subsidies to farmers when prices drop, FAIR offers a declining, flat subsidy even when prices go up. It’s part of a seven-year transition to prepare farmers to get off government assistance.

FAIR also permits farmers to plant crops other than wheat without losing payments. Nethercutt says that gives farmers “freedom to compete.”

But Olson said FAIR is a dangerous policy that jeopardizes the nation’s food supply and the health of the agricultural economy. Fifth District farmers can grow few alternative crops, she said, and they need subsidies to sustain them in bad years.

However, Olson would not roll back FAIR if elected. She would focus on getting more money for the Export Enhancement Program, which subsidizes U.S. wheat sales overseas. She also would create a market loan that would guarantee government backing and repayment of the loan whenever foreign subsidies push wheat prices below $3 a bushel.

“We should take a very strong look at providing tools to enable producers to compete in the world economy,” Olson said.

Olson said she believes Nethercutt’s most vulnerable agricultural issue is EEP.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he voted to reduce EEP spending limits from $1 billion in fiscal 1994 to $100 million this year. Current strong markets make EEP unnecessary, he said, though wheat prices have fallen $2 a bushel since May.

But neither candidate mentioned that economists have said EEP is the dinner bell for Canadian grain exporters. When the United States uses EEP, world prices are artificially inflated. That makes the United States an attractive market and Canada pours grain across the border.

A joint U.S.-Canadian commission in 1995 recommended abolishing EEP and other exports that distort trade. Olson’s brother, Jim Miller, was co-chairman of the commission.

- Grayden Jones

Environmental policy

Both candidates bristled at times when the discussion turned to the environment.

Olson tried to downplay her support of the “takings initiative,” a state ballot measure last year that would have paid landowners when environmental laws reduce property values.

Asked why she supported a proposal that appalled environmentalists and was rejected by Washington voters, Olson said, “I don’t think my vote on affairs of the state before I ever considered running for Congress is germane to this campaign.”

She probably wouldn’t support a federal takings initiative, she added.

Although environmentalists don’t see Olson as an ally, she tried to claim higher ground than Nethercutt.

As a wheat farmer, she “walks the walk every day of my life,” she said, also stressing her desire to spend more on scientific research to help clean up pollution.

Olson scolded Nethercutt for cutting money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“I am offended by people who think that how much money you throw at a problem is the sum total of your commitment to the environment,” Nethercutt fired back.

He also swung at the Spokanebased Inland Empire Public Lands Council, which flunked him on his first-term environmental record.

“I reject their designation or their characterization of me being an anti-environmentalist,” Nethercutt said. “That’s just not true! I breathe the same air as all of us do. I drink the same water. My kids do the same.”

Nethercutt claimed many votes, including his support of the Farm Bill, reflect his concern for environmental protection.

He also emphasized he believes he is in sync with “reasonable-minded environmental people.”

Both candidates expressed a desire to see federal money spent on the study and possible cleanup of the toxic metals that mining deposited in Lake Coeur d’Alene and the surrounding river basins.

“Let’s face it folks,” Olson said, “the Spokane aquifer is fed from Idaho.”

- Jim Lynch

Federal reform

Olson and Nethercutt agreed, in concept, that the federal government needs to be trimmed.

Olson said she’ll work for a balanced budget and that means some programs will have to be revised or eliminated. But it’s premature to pick specific targets, she said.

“I don’t believe that it is up to me to say I will eliminate this and I’m going to support this. I believe that it is important to have the input from the affected parties and the experts in the field, but I am committed to make those hard changes.”

Nethercutt had targets in mind - the departments of Commerce and Education, for example.

Commerce, he said, “has thousands of employees who can’t increase the commerce and the benefits to the business community across the country, but are burdensome and a hindrance.”

Essential services now performed in those departments could be reassigned to other agencies, he said.

Cuts aside, Nethercutt thinks some federal roles should be enlarged.

“I think we ought to put more money in medical research in this country. It’s a cost-saver long-run,” he said. He also would expand programs to prevent drug abuse by teenagers.

Olson suggested no new roles for government. “I don’t see anything that I want the government to add in particular,” she said.

Campaign finance reform? Both candidates are for it, and both say they’ve demonstrated their support by putting voluntary limits on their own campaigns.

Olson said she is limiting contributions from individuals to one-half the national maximum of $1,000 per election.

Nethercutt said he’ll raise at least two-thirds of his campaign money from individuals “within my district and my state” and no more than onethird from political action committees.

Neither candidate offered specific campaign finance limitations that could apply by law to all congressional candidates.

“I have very little idea about how we would go about finance reform, but I do believe that it is very, very important,” said Olson.

Self-policing is part of it, Nethercutt said. So is full disclosure of every contribution a candidate receives.

But, said Nethercutt, “As far as passing a law that says if you are a millionaire you can’t spend your own money, I can’t do that.”

- Doug Floyd

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 4 Photos

MEMO: These 3 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. ON-LINE INFORMATION You can read more about The Spokesman-Review debate between George Nethercutt and Judy Olson on the Internet. Virtually Northwest, The Spokesman-Review Web site, has a complete transcript of the debate between the two candidates for Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District. Just type http:/ /www.VirtuallyNW.com in your favorite search engine, click on Election Central and follow the directions to the debate.

2. WHERE THEY STAND… The issues Here are the positions on selected issues of the two candidates for Washington’s Fifth Congressional District seat.

TAXES/DEFICIT George Nethercutt: Supports a flat tax and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Supports a cut in the capital gains tax. Has introduced legislation to allow families to deduct payroll taxes - amounts paid for Social Security and Medicare - when filling out income tax form.

Judy Olson: Favors balancing the budget before making major tax cuts or revisions. Opposes the GOP’s 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. Says a tax credit for businesses that invest in new equipment or expansions would be better for stimulating the economy than a capital gains tax cut.

AGRICULTURE, ENVIRONMENT Nethercutt: Voted for 1995 “Freedom to Farm” bill, says marketplace, not government should decide what farmers plant. Supports federal “takings” laws to make government compensate landowners if regulations lessen the value of property. Would limit grass field burning near urban areas like Spokane, but not in less-populated areas in Eastern Washington.

Olson: Says farm bill is flawed because it doesn’t offer enough protection in bad years. Supported a state “takings” measure but would not support a federal law requiring such compensation. Believes grass field burning is a local rather than federal issue, but believes governments should look for a way to address the public health concerns and the industry’s economic needs.

TERM LIMITS, CONGRESS Nethercutt: Supports term limits, voted for several different proposals considered by Congress in the last two years. Favors self-policing of campaign financing, has a policy of taking no more than one-third of his total contributions from political action committees, and no more than than one-third of his individual contributions from outside the district.

Olson: Opposes term limits, says people should be able to vote for whomever they want and can limit terms at the ballot box. Has a self-imposed rule of accepting only half the federal limit of $1,000 per election from any individual in cash, but accepts more than that for in-kind contributions.

MEDICARE, WELFARE Nethercutt: Supported a GOP plan that would have slowed the rate of growth in costs per patient from about $4,800 to about $7,100 by 2002. Plan also called for encouraging more seniors to enroll in “managed care” plans, increasing co-payments for patients and slowing the rate of increases in payments to doctors and hospitals. Voted for the welfare reform law that passed this year, believes states can do a better job of designing welfare programs and deciding how to spend money, given to them through block grants.

Olson: Calls the GOP plan a cut to the Medicare program because she doesn’t believe it would keep up with inflation and new patients. Says Congress should work on a bipartisan solution to Medicare, which she agrees is facing financial problems, but says all savings in the program costs should be used to reduce the deficit. Says welfare should be reformed but that block grants need more guidelines to ensure states provide basic service and new workers get access to health and day care.

EDUCATION Nethercutt: Would eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, saying that would get rid of bureaucrats, not programs. Would send federal education funds to states as block grants. Supports voluntary school prayer, approved vouchers for Washington, D.C., schools system.

Olson: Favors keeping Education as a cabinet-level position to emphasize its importance, would oppose major funding cuts. Opposes vouchers to use federal funds in private schools. Does not believe government should mandate prayer.

3. FACT CHECK As she has in many campaign appearances, Democrat Judy Olson criticized U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt for the votes he took during the last two years in Congress. Nethercutt fought back with some of Olson’s own campaign materials to suggest she didn’t know what she was talking about. The bills she cited to bolster her claims had nothing to do with the issues she was highlighting, he said. Research by the newspaper after the debate showed Nethercutt was right. The Olson campaign did not do its homework in preparing her position papers and listed the wrong information. The staff confused the numbers of roll call votes with the numbers for specific bills. Thus a bill she claimed involved spending for police was really an amendment to the National Trail System; a bill listed as a vote to let wealthy Americans renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes was really an amendment to tax laws to deduct college costs. A week after the debate, a spokesman for Olson still could not explain the discrepancy. But Dave Field insisted that the real question was the congressman’s position on various issues. Field also accused the Nethercutt campaign, which sent staffers to the Olson office to collect the position papers, of misrepresenting themselves. “It’s no state secret, but we’re not giving them out to the general public,” Field said. “We’re giving them to people who would like to write letters (to the editor) to support Judy and want more information on her positions.” A spokesman for the Nethercutt campaign denied it had done anything underhanded. Ken Lisaius said a staff member merely walked the half-block that separates the two campaign offices and asked for Olson’s positions.

These 3 sidebars appeared with the story:

1. ON-LINE INFORMATION You can read more about The Spokesman-Review debate between George Nethercutt and Judy Olson on the Internet. Virtually Northwest, The Spokesman-Review Web site, has a complete transcript of the debate between the two candidates for Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District. Just type http:/ /www.VirtuallyNW.com in your favorite search engine, click on Election Central and follow the directions to the debate.

2. WHERE THEY STAND… The issues Here are the positions on selected issues of the two candidates for Washington’s Fifth Congressional District seat.

TAXES/DEFICIT George Nethercutt: Supports a flat tax and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Supports a cut in the capital gains tax. Has introduced legislation to allow families to deduct payroll taxes - amounts paid for Social Security and Medicare - when filling out income tax form.

Judy Olson: Favors balancing the budget before making major tax cuts or revisions. Opposes the GOP’s 15 percent across-the-board tax cut. Says a tax credit for businesses that invest in new equipment or expansions would be better for stimulating the economy than a capital gains tax cut.

AGRICULTURE, ENVIRONMENT Nethercutt: Voted for 1995 “Freedom to Farm” bill, says marketplace, not government should decide what farmers plant. Supports federal “takings” laws to make government compensate landowners if regulations lessen the value of property. Would limit grass field burning near urban areas like Spokane, but not in less-populated areas in Eastern Washington.

Olson: Says farm bill is flawed because it doesn’t offer enough protection in bad years. Supported a state “takings” measure but would not support a federal law requiring such compensation. Believes grass field burning is a local rather than federal issue, but believes governments should look for a way to address the public health concerns and the industry’s economic needs.

TERM LIMITS, CONGRESS Nethercutt: Supports term limits, voted for several different proposals considered by Congress in the last two years. Favors self-policing of campaign financing, has a policy of taking no more than one-third of his total contributions from political action committees, and no more than than one-third of his individual contributions from outside the district.

Olson: Opposes term limits, says people should be able to vote for whomever they want and can limit terms at the ballot box. Has a self-imposed rule of accepting only half the federal limit of $1,000 per election from any individual in cash, but accepts more than that for in-kind contributions.

MEDICARE, WELFARE Nethercutt: Supported a GOP plan that would have slowed the rate of growth in costs per patient from about $4,800 to about $7,100 by 2002. Plan also called for encouraging more seniors to enroll in “managed care” plans, increasing co-payments for patients and slowing the rate of increases in payments to doctors and hospitals. Voted for the welfare reform law that passed this year, believes states can do a better job of designing welfare programs and deciding how to spend money, given to them through block grants.

Olson: Calls the GOP plan a cut to the Medicare program because she doesn’t believe it would keep up with inflation and new patients. Says Congress should work on a bipartisan solution to Medicare, which she agrees is facing financial problems, but says all savings in the program costs should be used to reduce the deficit. Says welfare should be reformed but that block grants need more guidelines to ensure states provide basic service and new workers get access to health and day care.

EDUCATION Nethercutt: Would eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, saying that would get rid of bureaucrats, not programs. Would send federal education funds to states as block grants. Supports voluntary school prayer, approved vouchers for Washington, D.C., schools system.

Olson: Favors keeping Education as a cabinet-level position to emphasize its importance, would oppose major funding cuts. Opposes vouchers to use federal funds in private schools. Does not believe government should mandate prayer.

3. FACT CHECK As she has in many campaign appearances, Democrat Judy Olson criticized U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt for the votes he took during the last two years in Congress. Nethercutt fought back with some of Olson’s own campaign materials to suggest she didn’t know what she was talking about. The bills she cited to bolster her claims had nothing to do with the issues she was highlighting, he said. Research by the newspaper after the debate showed Nethercutt was right. The Olson campaign did not do its homework in preparing her position papers and listed the wrong information. The staff confused the numbers of roll call votes with the numbers for specific bills. Thus a bill she claimed involved spending for police was really an amendment to the National Trail System; a bill listed as a vote to let wealthy Americans renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes was really an amendment to tax laws to deduct college costs. A week after the debate, a spokesman for Olson still could not explain the discrepancy. But Dave Field insisted that the real question was the congressman’s position on various issues. Field also accused the Nethercutt campaign, which sent staffers to the Olson office to collect the position papers, of misrepresenting themselves. “It’s no state secret, but we’re not giving them out to the general public,” Field said. “We’re giving them to people who would like to write letters (to the editor) to support Judy and want more information on her positions.” A spokesman for the Nethercutt campaign denied it had done anything underhanded. Ken Lisaius said a staff member merely walked the half-block that separates the two campaign offices and asked for Olson’s positions.


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