Montana's major party candidates for U.S. House squared off Saturday in their final debate, trading barbs over public accountability and health care before midterm election voting begins.
Democratic challenger Kathleen Williams rapped Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte repeatedly for not interacting with constituents, particularly on the subject of public lands as the congressman advances two bills concerning more than 700,000 acres of federal wilderness study areas in Montana.
Williams, a three-term Montana legislator, said Gianforte has gathered little public input while advancing his bills. That's not how it's done, she said.
"I know the time to take public input is when you're proposing legislation, when you're crafting it, so that you can ensure that you've incorporated important input and not make mistakes," Williams said. "The forest service version has two areas where Montanans are participating in a public process right now to advise the managing agency on what should happen with those areas. That's a slap in the face to people who are participating in the process now and you need to be more careful proposing legislation, and that's what I'll do in Congress."
Gianforte's two bills would end wilderness study designations for 29 Montana areas that were considered 30 years ago for wilderness protections but were never recommended for the designation or cut loose from study.
That non-designation has made the study areas off limits to other land uses, ranging from new trails, to fire prevention, livestock grazing and logging.
The first-term congressman has said he authored the bills because Montanans asked him to.
"Local input is very important," Gianforte said. "That's why when the state Legislature adopted a resolution asking the federal delegation to return these lands that had been designated unsuitable for wilderness back to Forest Service and BLM inventory, and also letters from county commissioners representing their public input, I knew I had to act."
Williams said that request from the Legislature came from a few lawmakers, not the body as a whole.
On health care, Gianforte accused Williams of supporting Medicare for All, that is allowing people of all ages to enroll in the federal health coverage system currently offered to seniors. That's not what Williams has proposed, but it is a platform made popular by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and that Republicans have said would be a means for bankrupting the country.
"Under my opponent's plan of Medicare for All, really, results in Medicare for none," Gianforte said.
Williams does have a Medicare plan allowing Americans 55 and older to buy into Medicare, a program now mostly unavailable to people younger than 65. Williams’ thinking for the move is that not only would the 55 to 64 crowd get more affordable health care, but their departure from insurance pools would lower premiums for younger, healthier Americans.
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The Democrat has also proposed allowing the Medicare program to negotiate lower prescription drug costs from manufacturers, something federal law currently prohibits. She opposes several moves by Congressional Republicans that make insurance expensive and hard to come by for people with pre-existing conditions.
It’s a bold step that Congress hasn’t had the political will to pull off. The Affordable Care Act narrowly survived repeal last year.
"Part of my proposal is to allow people 55 and older to buy into Medicare. It has a role for private insurance companies," Williams said. "They are very involved. People seem to love Medicare. I hear that all across the state as I put 46,000 miles on my car. I also hear a lot of people not knowing where the congressman is when he keeps saying he's traveled across the state. He doesn't seem to be showing up in the communities I'm visiting."
Gianforte said the way to improve health care in America starts with dismantling the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He describes the Affordable Care Act as an expensive disaster. He’s supported Republican attempts to kill or weaken ACA — both the failed attempt in 2017 to repeal it and the successful repeal of the federal mandate on health insurance. He has supported legislation to fight drug addiction, voting earlier this year to improve access to tax-free health savings accounts that are allowing people to save up more of their own money tax free in order to pay for medical costs.
"I'm proud that this Republican Congress repealed the individual mandate, we repealed the medical device tax, but we can't just repeal. We have to replace. That's why we've worked with this Trump administration to add Association Health Plans," Gianforte said. "My view is we need more options for Montanans, not less. Rather than go to a single-payer system, which is completely government run, we need the private marketplace to provide. That's why I voted to, in July, and the House passed legislation that increases access to health savings accounts. My opponent has voted against that at the sate level and voted against being able to purchase insurance across state boundaries."
Currently health insurance plans offered by private insurers are unique to each state and regulated at the state level. Republicans have long supported allowing people to cross state lines to shop for cheaper insurance with the caveat that those policies might not offer the same level of coverage as policies in a consumer's own state.
As the debate wore on, Gianforte hit on two points, emphasizing that he has visited all 56 Montana counties since taking office in the summer of 2017, and backing the statement up with anecdotes about people with whom he's visited. He also brought House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, into the conversation. Pelosi has been a boogeyman of Republicans running for U.S. House for nearly 20 years. Associating Williams with the minority leader has been a repeated theme of the Gianforte campaign — that and linking Williams to "the resistance," a movement championed by liberal Democrats.
"You know, Congressman, in July I came out and said I would not be supporting Nancy Pelosi for leader and that we had an opportunity to choose new leadership across the U.S. House," Williams said. "Yet you're misrepresenting me on that as well, and reporters have called you out for that. We need honesty."
"It's very clear that if you vote like Nancy Pelosi and you take the same positions as Nancy Pelosi and at the end of the day, this is what this race is about," Gianforte said. "Do you want someone who is going to stand with President Trump and continue to deliver results for Montana, or do you want someone to join the resistance and join with Nancy Pelosi?"
The Saturday debate was organized by Montana PBS, which aired it live from Bozeman. There was no live audience for the debate.
Montana PBS chose not to include Libertarian candidate Elinor Swanson in its debate.