Healthcare dominated Rep. Conor Lamb’s town hall in Verona Thursday evening. The Democrat listened to constituents talk about expensive prescription drug costs and frustration over the UPMC Highmark dispute. But Lamb, who represents the 17th Congressional District, also heard call after call for a single-payer health care or Medicare-for-all system.
“My job as a legislator, though, is to think about practically, how we would ever afford something like that,” Lamb said of creating a government-run system. “The estimates and the time that it would take are really tough. No one has specifically figured that out.”
Lamb said if legislation came up to create such a system, “The last thing I’m going to do is support a big middle-class tax increase.” But he said he would be in favor of other options, like lowering the Medicare age qualifications so that the program would cover a broader swath of people.
The tone of the town hall was as measured as many of the Congressman’s answers, such as his response when asked about his support for fracking: “I wouldn’t say I support the fracking industry: I would say I support the jobs and the abundant energy that has come with it, energy that has allowed us to emit less carbon dioxide for the first time in a very long time.”
(Burning natural gas does produce less carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming, than burning coal. But the process can also leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas.)
He also stuck to a middle course when asked about impeachment inquiries against President Donald Trump, an issue that has riled Democrats across the country. “I’ve been a supporter all along for Congress getting to the facts of this thing, whatever they are by whatever means are available to us legally,” Lamb answered. Lamb doesn’t sit on the House Oversight, Judiciary or Intelligence committees -- whose oversight requests the Trump administration has denied. But he said the strategy of pursuing requests for evidence and testimony through court is working.
“I don’t know why the administration is hiding the ball, I don’t believe they should,” he said. “I think the information belongs to the American people. You paid for the Mueller investigation, you paid for the Mueller report. You deserve to know what’s in it except for the very tiny slice of things that have to do with national security.”
That answer didn’t satisfy North Hills resident Jay Parepally, who knocked on doors for Lamb last year. But he said he understood that Lamb is not in a progressive district like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents the Bronx and has called for impeachment inquiries to begin. Lamb's 17th district, which covers suburban areas of Allegheny County and Beaver County, is decidedly more moderate.
“I get what his position is for the seat that he holds, but I want to push him to go beyond the safe thing of letting the [court] process play out,” Parepally said after the event. “We've been kicking the can down the road for a while even on impeachment. I know he just got inaugurated and started this session in January. We're in June and they're not getting anywhere. This congressional investigation needs to go further.”
For other attendees, like Stacey Vernallis, Lamb’s response was satisfying in part because her former Congressman, Rep. Keith Rothfus, didn’t make himself available at all. (Penn Hills Democratic Party chairman Jerry Chippianelli said that Thursday’s event was the first town hall meeting they’d had in 20 years.)
“I spent 90 weeks in front of Keith Rothfus’ office requesting a town hall,” said Vernallis, executive director of ProgressPA. She said Lamb may not be as progressive as she is, but was happy he listened to constituents.
“What we have to do in these town halls is communicate to Conor just where his voters are, and that was present in the health care issue," she said. "He can not go back to his office tonight and say, ‘Half of my constituents really are satisfied that they've got employer-provided health care benefits.’ He's listening to horror stories of people with employer-provided health care benefits. So this is important.”