Agriculture, social justice and the federal government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic were all topics of discussion during Monday’s virtual forum with congressional candidates vying to represent the 6th District in the House of Representatives.
And while most questions yielded different opinions, there were similar viewpoints shared by incumbent Rep. Ben Cline, R-Lexington, and Democratic challenger Nicholas Betts.
Organized by the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce and the Rotary Club of Harrisonburg, the event drew more than 80 participants as the candidates held their first electronic forum ahead of November’s election.
Cline, who is wrapping up his first term in the House of Representatives, opened up by saying Harrisonburg had been a part of his life for many years, citing the time he spent working with predecessor Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke, and serving as assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Rockingham County and Harrisonburg.
“I have advocated for the people of the Shenandoah Valley,” he said. “I was the first freshman Republican to get a bill signed into law.”
Betts, a law clerk in Lexington, told participants through Zoom that he was ready to “hit the ground running.”
Betts said he supports affordable health care, clean energy jobs, investing in education by properly funding schools, increasing access to broadband resources and investing in wind and solar technology.
If elected, Betts said, his top priority would be to eliminate interest rates on student loans, adding that it would be helpful for individuals and economic growth.
“I think it is a pretty centrist idea,” he said. “[President Donald] Trump supports it, at least temporarily. We can get this done in a bipartisan manner.”
When the coronavirus relief bill passed in March, federal student loan payments were paused and the student loan interest rate was temporarily set to 0%.
According to the Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid Portfolio Summary, close to 42.6 million federal student loan borrowers collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion in federal student debt.
Cline said that if re-elected, his top priority would be to continue working on helping the economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic and help distribute a vaccine once one is found.
“Our economy is recovering, but we need to look beyond that,” he said. “We need to make sure small businesses continue to get the assistance they need. A lot [of small businesses] are on the edge of closing up.”
On the topic of COVID-19, both candidates were asked to give their opinion on the federal government’s response. Betts said there hasn’t been enough done to help hardworking Americans, while Cline said Congress moved quickly and aggressively to appropriate more than $8 billion to the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, as well as passing the $2.2 trillion coronavirus aid bill.
Cline agreed more needs to be done to help small businesses keep their employees on the books and off of unemployment.
Looking toward the future and future illnesses, candidates were asked what they think could be done to develop infrastructure within the health care system.
Cline said broadband networks providing networks for telehealth would need to be developed, as well as bringing back manufacturers from China that create personal protective equipment and other medical supplies.
“We need to establish [manufacturers] here in this country,” he said.
Betts said there needs to be more hospital infrastructure, adding that “if there are more places for people to go quickly, I think that would help.”
Both candidates agreed they would not support any tax increases and would support the agricultural industry by implementing changes, such as repealing the death tax to ensure a farm does not have to be sold or allowing the federal government to temporarily purchase excess food from farmers to supply those in need.
Cline and Betts also agreed that the First Amendment and freedom of speech were “essential” and need to be protected.
In closing, candidates were asked how they felt about term limits for those serving in Congress.
“I do support [term limits] and would be happy to vote on them when they apply for both Nancy Pelosi and myself,” Cline said. Pelosi, speaker of the House of Representatives, has represented California’s 12th District for 31 years.
Cline said it would be helpful to have term limits in place so there would no longer be “20- to 30-year lawmakers [to] resist the changes we need.”
Betts agreed there should be term limits to allow for a “balanced approach,” but was unsure what the limits should be.
“I think it’s important to have turnover in Congress because it brings in new ideas,” he said.
Both candidates will participate in a second electronic forum to be held on Oct. 5 hosted by the Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce.