George Nethercutt and Judy Olson plowed familiar ground with increasingly sharper rhetoric Sunday in Spokane, sparring over federal programs for seniors and schools.
While they were at it, they touched on such diverse topics as the siege at Ruby Ridge and Nethercutt’s suburban Washington, D.C., home.
At the televised debate, sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons and League of Women Voters, Olson accused Republicans of caring more about such issues as Whitewater and Randy Weaver than about Medicare.
They held some 80 days’ worth of hearings on the former topics, she said, but only one hearing before voting to make major revisions in the nation’s health care system for the elderly.
She acknowledged, however, that she didn’t have a plan to change the system which both candidates agree needs an overhaul.
“What these changes might be, I don’t know,” she said when asked for her recommendations on Medicare during the one-hour debate. “Don’t you think Medicare deserves more than one day of hearings?”
Nethercutt shot back: “It’s not a question of how many hearings you hold; it’s a question of the solutions you come up with and how honest you are.”
He then accused her of “pure politics and demagoguery” on the issue of Medicare.
For the record, the Republican Congress voted to reduce the rate of growth of payments for Medicare, from the 11 percent per year that would be needed under the current system, to about 7 percent a year. Democrats say that would have resulted in a cut in services as the number of people on the program continues to rise. Republican said services would have stayed the same or improved because more options would have been available that would have cut down on overall costs.
The proposal was vetoed by President Clinton. The president and Congress will have to address the rising costs of Medicare next year to keep the program solvent.
Olson also repeated her criticism of the House GOP plan to eliminate the U.S. Department of Education, and a proposed cut of $10 billion in the student loan program. Nethercutt responded that the cuts which were pared to $4.9 billion in the final bill only reduced the cost of bureaucracy.
“Middle-class families depend on student loans. I support student loans,” Olson said.
“What Mrs. Olson does support is a bigger bureaucracy in support of education,” Nethercutt replied.
For the record, the GOP proposal tried to revamp the nation’s student loan program, which is split between private lenders, such as banks, and direct loans, administered by the colleges with the assistance of the federal government. The Republican budget would have increased the share of loans handled by banks - a move which Democrats argue would have made it more difficult for students who don’t normally qualify under bank loan guidelines.
The Nethercutt campaign recently produced a letter from the Congressional Budget Office stating the proposal would not have reduced significantly the volume of student loans.
One of the sharpest exchanges of the day came when the candidates were given a chance to ask each other a question. Olson pointedly asked whether Nethercutt was violating his 1994 pledge to listen to Eastern Washington by “voting with the right-wing agenda of Newt Gingrich 95 percent of the time” and buying a house in suburban Washington, D.C.
“Who are you listening to now?” she demanded.
Nethercutt contended that his votes were “100 percent in line with Eastern Washington” and that Gingrich, as House speaker, hardly ever votes.
“I have two mortgages now, not one. Don’t criticize my kids for wanting to have a stable home,” he said. “If you’d like to run against Newt Gingrich, maybe you should go to Georgia and run there.”
To underscore Olson’s theme that Nethercutt was out of touch, students from Eastern Washington University and Whitworth College distributed fliers showing a picture of a house. The photocopied sheet claimed “he abandoned the 5th District for a wealthy D.C. suburb and a $420,000 New Estate.”
Looking at the picture after the debate, however, Nethercutt said they had the wrong house. It was actually a picture of the home his family rented for nearly a year until their lease expired. They then purchased another house in Virginia while keeping their house in Spokane.