U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell seemed relaxed Thursday as he met with about 30 residents in the Lincoln Museum Community Room. The group – composed of local officials, businessmen and women and retirees – gave the senior senator a warm welcome.
The usually glum Republican leader broke into laughter during introductions when Charles Durham, long-time drummer for Joel Ray Sprowls’ Lincoln Jamboree, referred to himself as “Joel Ray’s illegitimate son.”
The moment served to answer the question: “Does everybody in Kentucky know Joel Ray?”
After a few moments, McConnell returned to serious subjects ranging from the economy to President Obama’s healthcare reform to war in Syria.
He is worried, he said, about the country’s future.
“I think for the first time in my life I have real concerns for my children,” said McConnell, who was elected first to the Senate in 1984.
A national debt “the size of our economy,” slow growth and “massive expansion of government,” is impacting our future and present.
Several people asked questions about the Affordable Care Act – or Obamacare.
Health insurance marketplaces will open on Oct. 1. Most small employers – those with 50 or fewer full-time employees – are not required to offer health insurance coverage under the Act. Businesses with more than 50 full-time employees received a one-year reprieve from penalties if they don’t offer insurance. All companies, regardless of size, are required to notify employees about the marketplaces.
Requirements like these are causing businesses to “freeze up,” said McConnell. New businesses don’t start and existing businesses don’t expand as they wait to see what the economy will do.
Many businesses are trying to get below the 50-employee requirement to avoid the impact of Obamacare.
In addition, employers don’t have to offer health benefits to those who work fewer than 30 hours per week.
Hart County Judge/executive Terry Martin said his county had “plenty of jobs available” but is having a hard time filling positions.
For some potential employees, unemployment benefits, medical cards and food stamps turn into “more than they would make if they were working,” he said.
In addition, workers must pass a drug screen to start work. They’re not required to be tested to receive government benefits.
McConnell said he had heard the same comments many times before. He shared a maxim he heard from a colleague: “In every society, you have people in the wagon, and people pulling the wagon. The problem is when there are too many people in the wagon.”
Anthony Underwood, auto parts division manager at Konsei, described his employer as a “growing company taking on three new customers.”
Management is faced with automating some procedures in order to reduce its workforce to ease its burden under the ACA.
The company also deals with employees who “quit because they can make more” drawing government benefits.
“The country is failing the people who are doing the right thing,” said Underwood.
He asked how Obamacare could be changed.
McConnell said there appears to be bipartisan opposition developing since several Democrats voted for the delays in Obamacare.
“I think there is growing unease on the other side,” he said.
McConnell referenced a letter written by James P. Hoffa, general president, International Brotherhood of Teamsters to the Obama administration:
The letter read, in part: “Right now, unless you and the Obama Administration enact an equitable fix, the ACA will shatter not only our hard-earned health benefits, but destroy the foundation of the 40 hour work week that is the backbone of the American middle class.”
Hoffa said, “the law creates an incentive for employers to keep employees’ work hours below 30 hours a week. Numerous employers have begun to cut workers’ hours to avoid this obligation, and many of them are doing so openly.”
“We believe that there are common-sense corrections that can be made within the existing statute that will allow our members to continue to keep their current health plans and benefits just as you and the President pledged. Unless changes are made, however, that promise is hollow.”
McConnell referenced also a visual that drew several views on social media sites. In March, he gave a speech with the “Obamacare packet” on a heavy-duty dolly visible behind him. The papers stood 7-feet 3-inches tall and weighed 300 pounds.
The ACA started out as a 2,700 page binder. It’s grown into more than 20,000 pages.
“It’s a trainwreck,” said McConnell.
The over-regulation has led also to a depression in Eastern Kentucky coalfields with the loss of 5,000 coal jobs. Three additional jobs are affected by one coal job, said McConnell.
“It’s a wasteland in Eastern Kentucky and it’s government induced.”
Conservatives claim Obama has entered a “war on coal” in Kentucky with excessive regulation. The President has made statements that he promotes switching from coal to natural gas for electricity production.
Less regulation, spending and taxation are the keys to turning around the economy, he said.
McConnell accepted a few questions from the audience.
Magnolia Bank President Ron Sanders thanked McConnell for “being a friend to the banking industry.”
McConnell asked how the bank was doing with the “additional costs” associated with stricter regulations.
Sanders responded the bank isn’t making the money it once did for its investors.
The bank has two compliance officers and will probably hire a third due to the increased regulations. He predicted community banks will get out of mortgage lending, leaving it to third parties.
McConnell said bigger banks can absorb the costs better than smaller banks.
He referenced the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an independent federal agency that was created in 2011 after the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.
It has jurisdiction over banks, credit unions, payday lenders and debt collectors. It was set up to tighten mortgage-lending practices and has created a mound of paperwork for financial institutions.
McConnell said he didn’t vote for the Act - and “worries about an agency like that,” not being accountable to anyone else.
Magistrate Ronald Dale Nunn questioned him about the conflict in Syria.
A chemical attack took place in August near Damascus, killing 1,429. The U.S. is blaming the Syrian government.
McConnell gave an overview of the Muslim groups fighting each other in Syria. It’s difficult to have “any concerted action through the United Nations” because Russia and China can veto it, he said.
Senators differ in approaches to the conflict but they agree on one point.
“Nobody wants to put a single U.S. military personnel over there,” he said.
There is debate about U.S. response to the deaths with talk of cruise missiles being fired from ships at Syrian targets.
The missiles are “pretty accurate,” McConnell said.
However, it is possible to “look like a fool” as President Bill Clinton did in 1998 when he ordered strikes on targets in Afghanistan and Sudan “trying to get Bin Laden,” McConnell said.