The crowd was tame, the candidates respectful, and the questions were answered at the final congressional debate before the November general election.
Incumbent Republican Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick and Democratic challenger Scott Wallace made their closing arguments to a packed house at Bucks County Community College’s Gene and Marlene Epstein Campus in Bristol Township.
A coin toss was held to determine that Wallace would begin the debate, moderator Bill Pezza told the crowd.
The Buckingham Democrat started the debate by noting the crowd size. He explained to the crowd that he started working as a lawyer in the Senate where he worked with moderate Republicans. He said he has been guided by doing what is right and further added that government needs to get back to serving the people, not big money interests.
In the congressman’s opening remarks, he talked of his Levittown roots and discussed leaving his dream job as an FBI special agent to serve in congress. He also pointed to his bipartisan efforts during his freshman term in Congress. Fitzpatrick also noted his recent endorsements from the Bucks County Courier Times, Doylestown Intelligencer, and Philadelphia Inquirer.
The first question from Pezza was about the incivility that has swept politics.
“How can we get back to civility?” he asked.
Speaking to the crowd, Wallace said he has noticed the breakdown in the national conversation and lack of civility in Congress. He said the attitude starts from at top, referencing Republican President Donald Trump.
Fitzpatrick, who has spoken about the discourse in politics since his first election in 2016, said one of the biggest challenges facing our country is how we speak to one another “from the kitchen table to the White House.” He took aim at past comments from Wallace that political parties are like teams and stated everyone in the room is an American. A theme that he mentioned throughout the event was his inclusion the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
Wallace rebutted that he agrees with Fitzpatrick on that point that both parties need to work together, although it is hard in the current political climate. He also pointed to Fitzpatrick voting to support Congressman Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, as Speaker of the House.
“Civility is everything,” Fitzpatrick said, chiding Wallace for his recent mumbled curse at a place of worship during a forum.
The next question was about health care and the candidates’ views on it.
Fitzpatrick explained that he voted against the Trump-backed bill last year that would end the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. He also said he would vote against bills that he believes would make the system worse. Continuing, Fitzpatrick said that he was for reigning in malpractice rules, reforming insurance regulations, and adding state stability funds for those with pre-existing conditions. In line with his bipartisan statements, he said there are ways both parties can work together to fix health care.
Wallace said he would not have supported the Republican tax reform bill last year that hurt Obamacare and was voted for by Fitzpatrick. He added that Ryan wants to get rid of Obamacare and said Fitzpatrick has not opposed Trump’s actions against health care laws vocally enough.
The congressman hit back by remarking that Wallace brought up party label and said his support for Medicare for all is not a solution. Fitzpatrick said Medicare for all would hurt the economy and some of the most vulnerable people on private insurance. While answering, he said that Obamacare is flawed but he believes it can be improved.
Pezza added additional time for both candidates to speak about health care, which polls have found is among the most important issues for residents in the First Congressional District.
Wallace explained that he is now on Medicare along with his wife and it “works great,” adding they still see their same doctors.
Single-payer health care, which Wallace supports, should scare everyone, Fitzpatrick said.
“It’s not what we stand for in this country,” he said, adding that the Problem Solvers Caucus has ideas to fix health care.
The question that was up next dealt with the economy. Pezza asked the two men what causes the current economic growth and how can it be sustained?
Wallace admitted that the economy is doing well and pointed to the fact the upward swing started under Democratic President Barack Obama. He noted a correction might be in store for the stock market. Further, he said that wages are down for many but the rich are doing well thanks to flaws in the Republican tax reform bill. He added that foreigners invested in the economy are also seeing the benefits while many average Americans are not.
As he spoke further, Wallace suggested that the country should invest more money in people, infrastructure, and jobs. He said again that government needs to be working for the citizens.
“Great answer, Scott,” Fitzpatrick sniped back.
The congressman said the economy is doing well as a balance of regulation and deregulation is being found. He noted the balance is difficult and said he wants regulation that won’t hurt workers but also protects the environment. He further stated the “skills gap” is a major problem and pointed to recent workforce training funding from the federal government that will impact the area.
An issue that Fitzpatrick has often cited while talking about Wallace, who is worth more than $100 million, is the release of his tax returns. During the debate, Fitzpatrick needled Wallace to release his tax returns and said an accountant can look at both their returns and determine who did better under the previous and current tax law. Fitzpatrick added that he also wants the president to release his taxes.
Wallace hit back that he was not going to “play these political stunts” and said he was there to answer questions.
Fitzpatrick said he lives in a one bedroom condo in Middletown and Wallace has multiple homes around the world. He again made his tax return challenge to Wallace.
With a chuckle, Pezza said he has a “mild interest” in seeing Trump’s tax returns and asked both men if they would support legislation to have all federal-level politicians release their taxes.
Both men responded with “yes.”
Following the talk of taxes, Pezza asked the men about the growing deficit and their thoughts on it.
Fitzpatrick said the economy is dependent on growth and the United States needed to stay above three percent gross domestic product (GDP) to improve the amount of money coming into federal coffers after the tax reform. He said the surplus under Democratic President Bill Clinton was because of continued growth, noting he believes the recent tax reform bill makes growth easier.
Wallace said he “hates to burst your bubble” and said the tax reform is not that helpful. The multimillionaire candidate said it gave him several million extra, which he will invest in his campaign. Citing a Congressional Budget Office report and Wall Street Journal data, Wallace said the national debt is expected to grow. He also raised concern that the Republicans wanted to cut social programs to reduce the deficit.
Fitzpatrick responded by stating he disagrees and hammered down that three percent GDP growth is important.
A slight boo came from the crowd when Fitzpatrick again asked Wallace to release his tax returns.
Wallace said the “stunts are growing tiresome.”
Pezza referenced recent comments by Trump that he wants to cut taxes by another 10 percent and asked how that would work.
The congressman said he had only heard about the president’s comments in the media and no proposal has been made to Congress.
Wallace accused the president of dropping “goodies” to get Republicans out to vote in a tough mid-term election. He also cited fears over immigrants pushed by Trump recently. On the topic, Wallace said loopholes in tax law need to be fix for corporations and rich citizens, adding the top one percent need to pay more.
The next question tackled was climate change. Pezza asked where they stand on the issue and if they’ll be a voice on it.
Wallace said his work with his family’s Wallace Global Fund was focused, in part, on transitioning the economy to one based on green jobs and reducing carbon emissions. If elected, he said he would push green job training programs. Citing a recent movement by higher-learning institutions, Wallace said he supports divesting fossil fuels investments, citing the need for an “Apollo-like commitment” to go green.
Fitzpatrick pointed to his recent carbon tax proposal and said it took a lot of work. Under the bill, according to the congressman, the United States would meet the Paris Accord standards and help fund infrastructure growth.
“It’s not just an economic issue, he said, “it’s a security issue.”
Wallace said he agrees with Fitzpatrick that climate change is a security issue for the country. He hit Fitzpatrick’s carbon tax bill and said it is a “joke.” Also, he stated the Speaker of the House will not support it.
“You will only get change when you change the leadership in the House,” Wallace said.
Fitzpatrick said with a laugh that Wallace will criticize him for any reason, but admitted congressional gridlock is an issue on the left and right.
After a brief pause, Pezza asked Fitzpatrick and Wallace what they planned to do about cyber security.
The congressman said his experience as an FBI special agent and term serving in elected office have made him passionate about the issue.
“I talk a lot about it because people don’t talk about it because you don’t see it … a significant cyber attack can cut a democracy off at its knees,” Fitzpatrick said.
The issue, Fitzpatrick said, is being discussed by legislators and he has sought input from military leaders.
Wallace said America should be concerned about the issue due to the 2016 attack on the election, which the government has blamed on Russia.
“We need to take it much more seriously,” he told the crowd.
While speaking, Fitzpatrick said Democrats don’t have all the answers and Republicans don’t either. The congressman called for more support for the Problem Solvers Caucus and said an elected official should be a voice of the residents and not political parties.
Wallace, seeming a bit frustrated, said he is not at war with the Problem Solvers Caucus, but Ryan is the hold up.
Fitzpatrick responded by stating he has legislation to try to break the partisan gridlock, adding Wallace is obsessed with Ryan, who will soon be out of congress.
Pezza’s next question had to do with hot spots and conflict zones around the world, citing North Korea, Iran, the South China Sea, and terrorism. The moderator and community college professor asked for the mens’ views on foreign relations and what they would do with Saudi Arabia.
Wallace said there are still huge questions about the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of Saudi Arabia. He said he also has concerns over their “adventurism” in the Middle East and their stance on human rights. He added he does not believe Trump is strong on the issue and cited possible financial ties. In addition, Wallace said Saudi citizens were tied to the September 11, 2001 attacks.
In speaking about Middle East policy, Wallace said the country’s strategy is flawed. He also raised concerns over the United States pulling support for citizens in Gaza and asked who would fill our void, pointing to terror group Hamas.
Fitzpatrick said the Middle East can be very complicated and said many issues are “deep-rooted” and “cultural.” One challenge he said is how to balance friendships and react to problems in the region.
“It’s important we have those relationships and we need to keep them, but they need to be honest relationships,” he said.
Pezza questioned the two on the situation in Yemen and the United State’s support of attacks in the fractured country by Saudi Arabian armed forces.
Wallace said oil and security interest make the Yemen situation difficult but the government needs to hold countries accountable. Referring to Trump, he said the country needs to stop embracing enemies without question and work closer with our allies.
Fitzpatrick said Yemen demonstrates the complexities in the region. He said many times groups our military aligns with have very different motives than our nation. He added that Saudi Arabia needs to be investigated and we should respond to their bad behavior.
Continuing on foreign policy at Pezza’s request, Fitzpatrick said he supports trade agreements that are fair and back workers, citing his union endorsements. He also said he supports the controversial United States decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem in Israel. Citing his time in the FBI, Fitzpatrick said he was against the Iran deal and said it “paved a path to a nuclear weapon” for a country that backs many terrorist groups.
Wallace said he feels the United States is not safer under Trump and said the deal with North Korea has little benefit stateside. While he supported aspects of the Iran deal, the candidate said the deal should have hit the country more on their support of terrorism.
While speaking of relations with Russia, Wallace said he respects Fitzpatrick’s FBI service and wishes he would share his knowledge with the president. He asked Fitzpatrick to hold Trump accountable.
The debate then moved to the issue of immigration. Pezza asked if Fitzpatrick and Wallace supported a pathway to citizenship for those here illegally.
Wallace said immigrants who are here illegally and have stayed out of trouble and paid their taxes should have a path to citizenship. He also called for “comprehensive immigration reform” and added America needs to hold employers who hire those here illegally accountable. One suggestion he had was to create a national ID card to verify those applying for jobs are here legally. However, Wallace noted the ACLU has concerns with that policy.
Fitzpatrick said immigration and health care are two difficult problems facing America. He said the border needs stepped up security and he explained his time on the ground talking with law enforcement. He also said those who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals should be protected. He said the Problem Solvers Caucus has worked on legislation to tackle the immigration issue.
Wallace said Fitzpatrick having an immigration bill is great but it is no good if top Republicans just want to build a big wall, adding he wants a high-tech solution to border security.
“We need a change or personnel and a change of leadership in Congress,” Wallace said.
Fitzpatrick shot back by stating the Problem Solvers Caucus is important and will have support to become a majority if they can get 12 additional members.
For his closing statement, Fitzpatrick said the First Congressional District is big and challenging. He said he likes everyone in the crowd and thanked all those who attended while calling for compromise in Washington D.C.
Wallace said in his closing statement that the young people in the crowd will “smack some sense into us so-called grown ups.” He cited the work from young people on gun reform and climate change. In addition, he warned the crowd to not be fooled by Fitzpatrick’s talk of moderation. Wallace said the “nation’s soul” is on the ballot and urged everyone to get out and vote.
The debate ended with applause and both candidates greeting the crowd.
Security at the event was tighter than at previous debates but officials said no problems were reported.