Nearly 200 miles away from the political gridlock in Washington, U.S. Rep. Ben Cline, R-6th, was all smiles on friendly soil at a town hall meeting in Monroe Wednesday.
The freshman congressman, who succeeded Bob Goodlatte in January, greeted many gatherers by their first name as he shook hands and mingled at the Amherst-Monroe Ruritan Club in an event that drew roughly 50 people. Cline previously represented Amherst County in the Virginia House of Delegates and spoke fondly of his time as a state legislator, contrasting it from a federal political landscape he described as deeply divided.
“It has been an honor to represent Amherst County in Richmond for 16 years and now up in Washington,” Cline said. “It’s like a homecoming for me to be able to come back and talk to you about the last five months. It’s been a whirlwind…”
From figuring out the parking and dining arrangements at the nation’s capital to rubbing shoulders with lawmakers from across the country, he spoke of the need to find common ground in a politically polarized climate.
“I’m learning my parliamentary tricks up there and learning how to get things done,” he said.
In Richmond, Democrats and Republicans ate together and made small talk, a scene he said seems nonexistent in Congress. Republicans and Democrats enter proceedings from a separate door and don’t dine together.
“People say it’s a swamp. I say it’s a circus because it’s a show,” Cline said of the political stalemate, later adding: “I’m try to reach across the line but what I found is they don’t make it easy on us.”
During the gathering Cline addressed the public remarks made earlier in the day from special counsel Robert Mueller, who wrapped up his two-year investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election in which he emphasized he did not exonerate President Donald Trump. Cline said he encourages everyone to read the report.
“It’s important we learn more,” Cline said. “I asked to review the redacted portions that are not related to grand jury testimony … I think the Mueller Report is informative, but I also think there is more I’d like to hear as a member of the Judiciary Committee.”
Cline emphasized he was pleased the report concluded there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
“And I’m glad that they found that and I think every American should be glad that there is no evidence to establish there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Cline said. “Every American should be pleased about that finding and if not, I think we need to have some self-evaluation …”
He said the report doesn’t “all fit into a box” and a lot of questions remain.
“So if [House Speaker Nancy Pelosi] wants to go ahead with impeachment, that’s her right, but I encourage everybody to read the report,” Cline told gatherers.
Pelosi has stopped short of calling for Trump’s impeachment while others in Congress have spoken in favor of the process. Cline said he believes more pressing issues are facing the country, including what he described as a “crisis at the border” with illegal immigration.
“I think that the Mueller Report speaks for itself and I’m looking forward to addressing some of the issues the voters sent me to Washington to address like immigration …” Cline said in an interview.
Cline said he supports Trump and described his administration as invigorating the economy, slashing regulations and helping businesses. “And I think that’s showing in the great economy that we’ve got and we need to continue that economic success.”
Addressing Russian interference, Cline said Congress needs to respond “because they’ll keep trying if we let them so we need to take action at the federal level.” He said he is pleased Virginia went back to using a paper system with elections because an electronic method was susceptible to “monkey business.”
“We should do more with Russia,” he told gatherers. “But Russia is not the only country that tries to monkey with our elections. North Korea tries, China tries…”
“But Russia is succeeding,” a woman said.
On immigration, Cline said he feels a wall or barrier and more security at the point of entry is necessary, as well as reforming the nation’s asylum procedures. In the interview, he also said he hopes to see the U.S.’s trade war with China and the tariffs that are affecting farmers come to a resolution soon.
“Farmers are hurting,” Cline said, adding prices are at rock bottom and his office seeks to help find ways for relief. “There are aid packages available. We are happy to be that conduit with the administration, but we are working to get the tariffs lifted and trade restored as quickly as possible.”
An Amherst County resident asked Cline if he supports imposing term limits on how long members of Congress can serve. Cline said he would consider supporting the measure as long as it applies to all members and he also spoke in favor of a balanced federal budget.
“I think the founders would be surprised at how big the federal government has gotten, how much it has grown beyond the instructions in the Constitution,” and how all the three branches have usurped the role of the states, he said. “It was designed to be a partnership between the federal and state governments and it doesn’t feel like that anymore. It feels like the federal government is talking down to the state governments all too often.”
He said he would seek to work across the aisle to get pressing matters accomplished.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to bring the volume down and start working together,” Cline said. “Washington doesn’t have all the answers. So we need to just kind of lower the tone, lower the volume and see if we can work together.”
Cline said he will hold more town halls in the Sixth Congressional District, which includes 19 counties and cities. He has held one in Lynchburg and plans to hold one soon in Bedford County, he said.
An Amherst resident asked Cline if he would pledge to have more town halls while in office, noting it is a welcome change from his predecessor, Bob Goodlatte, who didn’t hold any in Amherst in past years.
“I think it is so important to show that these types of civil discussions can happen,” Cline said. “As long as they continue, I’ll continue to do it.”
“I lived in Bedford County for almost 40 years and never saw Bob Goodlatte,” said Betsy Smith, a Forest resident. “We do appreciate it.”
Smith asked Cline if he would support a call from Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., following Mueller’s remarks Wednesday for passing legislation that enhances election security.
“Absolutely,” Cline said. “We’re all in this together.”
Milton Carson, a Vietnam veteran and Madison Heights resident, brought up issues affecting veterans. Cline said suicide rates among veterans are unacceptable and more can be done to help them in areas of job assistance, homelessness and addictions.
“We don’t do enough for our veterans,” Cline said. “…When they come back, we want to make sure this country stands up for those who stood up for us.”
Steve Poleski, a county resident, asked what the Republican Party is doing to address health care with the 2020 elections looming. Cline spoke of having more health insurance available in the market rather than government coming in and what he described as negative effects of Obamacare.
“So we need to make the marketplace work again by taking off some of those requirements … a lot of those mandates need to come off so you can get a plan that’s right for you,” Cline said.
The Republicans are in the final stages of reviewing a health care plan that would be presented soon, he said.
Cline also spoke in favor of exploring the potential for offshore drilling and establishing nuclear energy facilities on the coastline if it can be done safely and cleanly. At the conclusion of the gathering he received applause from many gathered.
“I’m not in this for the perks, I’m in it for righting this fiscal ship of state that we have that is desperately close to being dashed on the rocks and us looking like Greece,” Cline said. “…I consider Amherst to be a second home of sorts. I’m from Rockbridge, but I feel like this is family.”