HONOLULU - The two candidates for Hawaii's 1st Congressional District on Thursday sparred over the economy, government spending and senior citizen programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Republican Charles Djou and Democrat Colleen Hanabusa, in their final televised debate before the Nov. 2 general election, agreed that Congress should do nothing that would threaten the two bedrock, decades-old programs that are of great interest to retirees and the elderly.
They both also said they oppose privatization of Social Security, a longtime goal of some Republicans.
But in a forum sponsored by KHON and AARP, they quarreled over most everything else, including ways to spur the economy, federal economic stimulus spending, and keeping more doctors in practice and caring for seniors.
"The problem in the United States Congress today isn't with revenues," said Djou, the incumbent who won a May special election over Hanabusa and 12 other candidates. "The problem with Congress today is spending too much."
Hanabusa, the state Senate president, said the nation's huge annual budget deficit is mainly the result of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and broad income tax cuts enacted by President George W. Bush in 2001 and 2003.
"When (President) Bill Clinton left office, we had a surplus," she said, noting that Bush and a GOP-controlled Congress subsequently chose to end the tax cuts this December. "You let the wealthy continue with their tax cuts, then you are going to look at $700 billion more in terms of adding to that deficit."
Hanabusa supports retaining the tax cuts for everyone but individuals earning $200,000 or more a year, and married couples making more than $250,000. Djou wants to keep the tax cuts for everyone. Either plan would add at least $3 trillion to the deficit over the next decade.
On another subject, Hanabusa contended Djou was frightening seniors by suggesting that the health reform act that was enacted earlier this year would lead to a reduction in Medicare benefits. She cited a provision of the reform law that she said prevents that.
"The one thing we cannot have is for our (seniors) to be concerned about whether Medicare is going to be cut," she said.
Djou responded broadly, criticizing how the immense health care reform legislation went unread by many lawmakers before they voted on it. "That's not right. That's not open, honest, transparent government," he said.
The Republican also attacked another measure passed in August that directed millions of dollars to Hawaii and other states to help finance Medicaid and education programs. "This particular measure bailed out a lot of fiscally irresponsible states, but 50 percent of its funding came from cuts to the food stamp program," he said.
But Hanabusa asserted that Djou was contradicting himself. She said the food stamp funding that Democrats cut was originally authorized by the 2009 federal economic stimulus law.
Democrats "determined that it wasn't needed," she said, adding that since Djou opposes the stimulus law, he should applaud part of it being eliminated.
Asked how to keep more Hawaii doctors in practice and caring for seniors, Djou said general and punitive damages in medical malpractice lawsuits should be limited to $250,000.
He and Hanabusa said the federal system that sets Medicare reimbursement rates for doctors should be scrapped, but Hanabusa said she would vote to extend it temporarily until changes are made.
Hanabusa also criticized Djou for using his congressional mailing privileges to recently send district residents several fliers at what she said was a cost of $440,000 in taxpayer money.
"I don't see how that can possibly be justified," she said.
Djou responded by saying his constituents should be able to reach him or his offices, and that some told him it was the first time a member of Congress had asked for their thoughts.
"This is what a responsible member of Congress does," he said.
The district represents urban Oahu.