About 100 people packed the main meeting room in the South Brunswick Municipal Building on Monday evening for a town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ-12). The congressman took questions from the audience on a variety of topics, with social security and health care being the two main areas of concern.
"There's a lot I could say about what's going on in Washington, New Jersey and around the world, but I could speak best from your questions," Holt told the audience as the meeting began.
The meeting, which ran from 7 p.m. to about 8:45 p.m., included multiple questions concerning the state of Medicare and social security.
"Medicare and social security are successful programs and the stories of their imminent demise have been greatly exaggerated," Holt said. "Those stories are enormous exaggerations. There are concerns but they are generally in good shape."
Holt stated that a proposal to convert social security into private accounts "where people can invest and look into their own needs" had a number of problems.
"Even if you made good investments, the market isn't always ready when you are ready to retire," Holt said. "We've seen some examples of that the last few years."
Holt was challenged on the stability of social security by one questioner, who said social security should've gone private 15 to 20 years ago, stating, "economics has been a dismal science."
According to Holt, in order to make social security stable for when the young children of today reach retirement age, small changes need to be made to insure the program's stability for the future.
"Social security has never missed a payment and there are only a handful of people in this room that won't get 100 percent of their full social security benefits," he said. "Under conservative estimates, everyone will get 100 percent for the next 30 years, but that's not good enough."
Holt said several small changes, such as raising the cap on income subject to FICA taxes, and changing the retirement age are two possible changes that could put social security on sound financial footing.
"The changes we would have to make are smaller than the changes that were made (to social security) in 1983," Holt said.
The questioner was denied the opportunity to respond to Holt's statement, as the forum's moderator said other people were waiting to ask questions and there had already been substantial time spent discussing social security.
Holt was also challenged on health care by South Brunswick resident Bill Axelrod, who asked why members of congress are exempt from the health care reform bill, commonly referred to as "Obamacare."
Holt said that information was incorrect and stated members of congress would not be exempt.
"In the U.S. the only people who are required to get health insurance from the new health care plan are members of congress," Holt said. "This idea that congress imposed Medicare on people is so off base. We will be in the health care plan."
According to Holt, the purpose of the health care reform bill is to provide greater access to quality health care, but the main issue is keeping the cost down. He stated that 22 percent of the cost for health insurance premiums are not spent on health care by insurance companies, with that money instead going to areas like executive bonuses and marketing expenses.
"Under the new law, (health insurance companies) must spend 80 to 85 percent (on health care)," Holt said. "It should be 90 to 95 percent, but then the companies would squawk that they can't make a profit."
Holt stated that the health care reform bill doesn't deal directly with the cost of health insurance, but there are provisions in the bill that indirectly keep costs down, according to the congressman.
"Insurance companies look for any way they can to raise costs," Holt said.
Holt was also questioned on his support for Israel in the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. He was asked whether he backs President Obama's policy for any peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians to be based on boundaries that existed prior to the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Holt stated that the U.S. must play an important role in the peace process, but did not answer directly whether he supported the policy.
"I hope (President Obama) will get something going because it's important for our security, the world's security, and Israel and Palestine's security," Holt said.
On the topic of energy conservation, Holt said the U.S. has slipped behind the rest of the world in energy efficiency and new technology. He said the U.S. needs to examine many different ways of generating energy, including perfecting methods for generating solar energy.
"The Chinese have invested tens of billions of dollars in solar collectors that undercut everyone else in the world," he said. "You can't compete with that."
Holt also expressed his support for a ban on fracking in the Delaware River Basin and his concern over a vote on whether to extend unemployment benefits for people who have been out of work for an extended period. He said it's inaccurate to label people who have been out of work for over a year as trying to take advantage of the system, and said it's untrue that these people haven't been looking for employment.
"The number of people who have been out of work for over a year is at its highest level since 1930," he said.
Holt also expressed his support for seeking out programs that would allow seniors to remain in their homes instead of transitioning to nursing homes.
The town hall meeting closed with a question on the impact of charter schools on the public school districts from which they would draw their students.
"The public has demanded, rightly, for choice in public schools and the charter school movement is an effort to provide that," he said.
Holt stated that charter schools generally have a 50-50 record of success, and charters that aren't performing well should be shut down. He stated there must be a high level of transparency and accountability for charters and there should be better communication between charters and public schools.
"We mustn’t let charter schools become the tail that wags the dog," he said. "They shouldn't be allowed to dominate or drain resources from the public school system."
Holt also expressed his concern over school vouchers. He said competition is a "good thing," but resources should not be taken away from failing school systems.
"We need to try to improve under performing schools, but taking resources away from them is not the way to do it," he said.