The town commissioners' meeting room in the Bel Air Town Hall as a capacity of 115, and every bit of available space was taken Tuesday evening as local residents crowded in to hear from U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, a Republican from District 1.
Harris, whose district includes northern and central Harford County, Eastern Shore and portions of Baltimore and Carroll counties, hosted a town hall meeting to hear from constituents.
Griff Jenkins, a correspondent with the Fox News Channel cable news network, and a crew, also covered the event.
Harris spent nearly two hours responding to audience questions on issues such as federal spending, energy policy, immigration, health care reform, defense and scandals which have occupied Congress during the past year, including the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, and revelations in 2013 that the Internal Revenue Service allegedly gave extra scrutiny to conservative groups and a National Security Agency program to compile Americans' telephone records.
"I'm offended by the government having access to the [phone] records," he said.
Harris gave a brief introduction on the state of the federal budget and his concerns about the growth of health care costs under the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act over the next 40 years.
Harris' staff showed a series of slides, including one which showed projections of government spending as a portion of the national economy from 2011 to 2051, based on data from the Congressional Budget Office.
The graph showed federal health care spending growing from 5 percent in 2011 to 12 percent in 2051, compared to growth of less than a percent of Social Security spending, which was about 5 percent in 2011, and declines in the categories of other mandatory spending and discretionary spending from about 3.5 percent to 2 percent, and 9 percent to about 5 percent, respectively.
Implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law in 2010 and is known by its detractors as ObamaCare after its champion, President Barack Obama, has been phased in during the past three years.
A federal mandate for most Americans to have health insurance is scheduled to take effect in 2014.
Americans can sign up to purchase health insurance through state or federally-run exchanges that make up the Health Insurance Marketplace, starting Oct. 1, according to the HealthCare.gov website.
Detractors of the Affordable Care Act have characterized it as a government takeover of health care, a sentiment that Harris, who is an anesthesiologist, has long echoed.
"We have got to get health care right, and the government running health care is not the way to do it," he said.
Harris drew the written audience questions out of a bowl; one person asked when he expected Congress to revisit raising the debt ceiling, or the limit on how much money the federal government can borrow.
Congress must vote to raise the debt ceiling; the run-up to the last debt ceiling vote in 2011 was marked by partisan divides among congressional Republicans and the president and his Democratic allies in Congress, and raised fears of a government shutdown if Congress could not come to an agreement.
Congress did vote to raise the debt ceiling, setting the next vote for 2013; the compromise came with a series of deep, automatic, across-the-board spending cuts called sequestration, which are taking effect now and have resulted in furloughs for federal workers.
Harris called sequestration "sloppy," and "not elegant in any way, shape or form."
He said the next vote on the debt ceiling could come in November; he said he did not support raising the limit without greater spending cuts, including delaying further implementation of the Affordable Care Act, or eliminating it.
"If we're going to raise the debt ceiling, if we're going to do that to generations of Americans, we had better get our fiscal house in order," he said.
The health care legislation was not popular with much of the audience, which also booed in response to a question about providing a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants.
Harris said the majority-Republican House of Representatives would not take up immigration reform in the near future if the Democratic-controlled Senate and the Democratic president continue to push for allowing those who entered the country illegally, but have otherwise been productive residents, to become U.S. citizens.
Immigration reform legislation passed the Senate in June with support from Republican senators, but House Republicans have said they will not support legislation with a path to citizenship provision, which detractors consider amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Harris, who is the son of Eastern European immigrants, said "we welcome immigrants to come here legally and participate in our economy."
He said one aspect of the United States which is attractive around the world is that it is "a nation of laws."
"Amnesty is a step back from the rule of law," he said. "I don't think that makes us better as a country."
Harris supported increased defense spending in response to a question about why the U.S. has 11 aircraft carriers and China has one.
The congressman said the U.S. should have more and supported cutting spending for agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Education.
"We have to defend the largest trading economy in the world, which is our economy," Harris said.
"There are very few things that are enumerated in the Constitution that are the responsibility of the federal government," he explained. "Defending the country is one of them."
Harris stayed after the town hall ended to speak with members of the audience.
"This is the best-attended town hall meeting I have anywhere in the district," he told the Bel Air crowd. "God bless you all."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun