U.S. Rep. Rick Allen talked about the need for skilled workers in a growing economy, the still unsettled five-year Farm Bill and progress on veterans’ health care Monday in remarks to the Rotary Club of Statesboro.
Allen, the Republican from Augusta first elected by Georgia’s 12th District in 2014, faces a Democratic challenger, Francys Johnson of Statesboro, in the Nov. 6 general election. Asked by the Statesboro Herald after Monday’s meeting if he will debate Johnson, Allen said that he does not shy away from debates but that he is busy and that a debate or forum has not been scheduled.
The Rotary Club has Johnson scheduled as a speaker in September. But reflecting Rotary’s rule that its meetings not be turned into a political platform, Allen in his remarks to the club did not refer to Johnson or even mention that this is an election year.
Instead, he started by referring to House Speaker Paul Ryan and his “A Better Way” legislative agenda, which Allen has supported. Ryan did not seek re-election to his House seat this year and so will leave office, including the speaker’s role, in January.
“Three years ago, as you know, Paul Ryan was elected speaker of the House of Representatives,” Allen said. “He did not want to be speaker, OK? But he agreed to do it and then in that 114th Congress we went away for a weekend with the Senate and we came up with what we thought was a better way.”
The Republican agenda had six main planks, including those on health care, “growing jobs,” tax reform “poverty to prosperity,” Allen said, and planks on national security and adherence to the Constitution.
With that agenda in 2016, Republicans won the White House and the Senate and the kept the House, “and the president agreed to all of those main strategies to return America to greatness, and he added two more,” Allen said.
The two issues President Donald Trump added were “immigration reform” and trade.
Six years ago, before Allen had thought about running for Congress, he said, business at his construction company was off about 40 percent. Pessimistic about when the economy would recover, he advised a young person at the time to keep his head down and hold onto his job.
“Well folks, today I’ve been in the district for four weeks. It’s like somebody turned on a light switch,” Allen said Monday. “I have never seen this much optimism in my life from the standpoint of folks that want to grow their businesses and want to put people to work.”
Back for those four weeks during Congress’ August recess, Allen said he hasn’t seen anything like the current signs of job growth during his lifetime, for that matter.
“Of course, that creates other problems,” he said. “We need a work force. We’ve got 6.7 million jobs open in this country right now. We’ve created and brought back 300,000 manufacturing jobs, and of course that puts a lot of pressure on the Education and Work Force Committee.”
That is one of the two standing committees he serves on.
Three weeks ago, Allen returned to Washington for Trump’s signing of the Career-Technical Education Bill, a $1.1 billion overhaul of the act under that name last reauthorized in 2006.
“It’s going to be great for our career-technical educators,” Allen said. “It allows them access to funding for jobs that the business community needs.”
Also a member of the Agriculture Committee, Allen was closely involved in development of the House version of the Farm Bill, which would authorize all U.S. Department of Agriculture programs for five years beginning Oct. 1. As in past farm bills, the biggest funding item in the legislation is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“It was a very difficult bill to pass, not because of the farm part but because we have work requirements under the supplemental nutrition program,” Allen said.
The version of the bill that the House passed included work requirements. The version passed by the Senate did not.
As Allen explained, the work requirements in the House version would require people ages 18-49 who are “work capable,” meaning that they do not have small children, to work 20 hours a week or receive skills training.
He noted that similar requirements existed in the late 1990s under welfare reform signed into law by President Bill Clinton. In fact, the 2014 Farm Bill, slated to expire Sept. 30 also contains work requirement language, but the requirements were waived during the recession years under President Barack Obama.
But Maine and Kansas established work requirements similar to those in the House bill, and these have been very successful, Allen said. In Maine, he said, 85 percent of the people who returned to work as a result of the requirements are now off government assistance.
Allen has been named to the conference committee of representatives and senators who will attempt to work out a version of the Farm Bill acceptable to both the House and Senate. SNAP work requirements are not the only difference.
“I already know that … some folks like the timber part of the Senate bill but we like the production part of the House bill, the crop production part,” he said.
The conferees’ work is slated to begin when Congress reconvenes next Tuesday.
Congress has passed probably over 20 pieces of legislation dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs health care system this year, Allen said. Some of the new laws overhaul the Veterans Choice program and related provisions to allow more veterans to obtain government-funded care through private physicians.
“Really the only way you’re going to get the VA to game-up is competition, and so if a veteran can’t get the services he needs at a veterans’ clinic, then he can go to his private doctor and receive that benefit,” Allen said.
Sunday, the Statesboro Herald published a letter to the editor from Bulloch County Democratic Committee Chair Jessica Orvis stating the Johnson is ready to debate Allen and asking Allen to pick a time and place.
“We’ll look at it as far as our schedule is concerned,” Allen said in response to a one-on-one question after the Rotary meeting. “I mean, I’ve debated plenty of folks, I don’t shy away from debates, but at the same time, we’ve got our plan in place and that plan does not include any debates at this time.”
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.