Rep. Diane Black, in one of her first open meetings since being sworn in as 6th District congressman a month ago, told a friendly audience here Friday that her priority is to reduce federal spending.
"We are living way outside our means," Black said during a public question and answer session held at the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association headquarters on North Ellington Parkway.
The House vote to repeal last year's health care legislation was another topic she discussed. The Senate did not agree to a repeal, but she said the two chambers might agree to reverse certain aspects of the legislation, which is also being challenged in the court system. And the House may try to deny funding for certain aspects of the legislation.
Earlier in the day, Black spoke with Marshall, Bedford and other counties' elected leaders. Those meetings were not open to the press.
Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is a former Tennessee state senator with a background in nursing. She was elected to the seat formerly held by Democrat Bart Gordon, who did not seek re-election.
Members of the audience who spoke at Friday's open meeting were friendly to Black's policies, in some cases prodding her to go even further.
Black said the new Congress has plotted out a schedule which will have members in Washington for three weeks and then off for a week, allowing them to spend more time in their districts communicating with constituents.
The new Republican-controlled House has enacted rules to promote open government, Black said. Each bill must now specifically cite the provision in the U.S. Constitution that authorizes it. Bills must be made available to the public at least three days before they're subject to a vote. Black said the committee process has become more open. Each House committee now has an oversight subcommittee, which is to review the case for whether or not to continue the federal programs overseen by that committee, and to monitor those programs for waste, fraud and abuse.
Black was appointed to the House Budget Committee and the House Ways and Means Committee.
The House has already voted to: cut Congressional office spending by 5 percent; ban "earmark" spending bills, to cut public funding for presidential campaigns and party conventions; and use the 2008 fiscal year, prior to the adoption of stimulus programs, as the baseline for future spending, Black said. Furthermore, Congress no longer requires paper printouts of every bill.
Those cuts add up to hundreds of millions of dollars, Black said, calling it a fortune to the average American, but a tiny fraction of the $14.5 trillion national debt.
Black displayed a pie chart breaking down the $3.5 trillion national budget. Of that budget, 40 percent - $692 in defense spending and $666 in non-defense spending - is considered "discretionary" spending and available to be adjusted up or down as part of the budget process. The other 60 percent of the budget consists of programs like Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, interest on the national debt and other programs considered "non-discretionary," and Black said that non-discretionary spending is a threat.
"That part of the budget continues to grow, year after year after year," Black said, adding that the debt has grown from $13 trillion to $14.5 trillion just in the time since she first started campaigning for the 6th District seat.
Black praised Sen. Bob Corker's proposed spending cap. Corker and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) are introducing legislation to force Congress to dramatically cut spending over 10 years. But Black said requiring a balanced budget on an ongoing basis would require a constitutional amendment.
Black said the health care bill last year did not go through the normal congressional committee process.
She said the House vote to repeal the bill crossed party lines, with both Republicans and Democrats voting yes, while the Senate vote not to repeal it was strictly by party lines.
She said the House and Senate are in bipartisan agreement on doing away with a provision, passed as part of the health care bill because of the revenue it would generate, which would have required businesses to issue IRS form 1099 for any vendor purchase over $600.
In response to a question by Peggy Hubbard, Black pointed to her experience as a nurse, emphasizing that, as a state senator, she helped pass a long-term care bill that makes it easier for people to get affordable home care in cases where in-home care is an alternative to nursing home care. She called the bill "one of my proudest accomplishments" and said it allows patients to qualify for reimbursement only once, rather than having to re-qualify every time the level of in-home care is adjusted.
She said the nursing home industry originally opposed efforts to promote in-home care, but has come to recognize its necessity.
Pharmacist Gene Parsons spoke about waste and fraud in healthcare and noted that TennCare patients had no ceiling - they could go to the doctor every day. Black agreed with her, comparing TennCare to an all-you-can-eat buffet, saying most people tend to overindulge at such buffets if there's no financial consequence.
Medical tort reform is "on the drawing board this year," Black said, noting some states with such reforms have lowered health care costs. President Obama said in his State of the Union address that he would be open to tort reform proposals.
Also Friday, Black responded to a question from someone in the audience who favored elimination of the Environmental Protection Agency.
"I do believe that the EPA has got too much authority," Black said. The EPA's authority is too much like legislative power but without accountability to the voters.
"Personally," Black said, "I think there are other places that can do what EPA is doing."
Black said she is "totally for" more oil drilling within the U.S.
"We have oil here in this country," she said. "We need to get the regulations out of the way." She said the BP oil spill was, in part, a result of onerous regulations that pushed drilling operations so far offshore.
Alternative energy sources also need to be promoted and explored, Black said.
"Let's do it all," she said.
Tribune staff writer Karen Hall contributed to this story.