The federal deficit, energy policy and the farm bill were sharply debated in Bismarck Thursday night by Rep. Rick Berg, R-N.D., and former Democratic Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp.
A capacity crowd inside the Horizon Middle School auditorium gathered to see the two Senate candidates spar for the final time before Election Day, and they wasted no time sharing differing views on the actions of leaders in Washington D.C. in regards to the federal deficit.
“I believe the North Dakota way is the right way. We went off the ditch in a bipartisan way,” Heitkamp said. “All problems in America can be solved ... if we stop playing political games. We have to sit down together to work on these (problems).”
Berg agreed that the problem in Washington is partisanship.
“The first step is you need a budget,” Berg said. He added that the Democratic-led Senate hasn’t passed a budget in three years.
Berg said Heitkamp has stated that she’d support Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, to remain in his role if elected.
“He’s not come to the table in three years,” Berg said. “You have to have a budget, you need to have a plan.”
Heitkamp said she has nothing to do with the current Senate leadership’s failure to pass a budget.
“I think it’s atrocious that we don’t have a budget,” Heitkamp said.
Heitkamp then pointed to the budget sequestration facing Congress during the lame duck session following the election. She said sequestration would be “a disaster” for jobs and for the economy if allowed to take place. Sequestration is a series of across-the-board budget cuts that would kick in at the end of the year due to last year’s failure to reach a budget.
The conversation soon was directed to what tax loopholes the candidates would favor closing to help rein in the deficit.
Berg said he favors an overall simplification of the tax code. He said he’d start with lowering the corporate and individual income taxes to 25 percent and go from there.
Heitkamp countered that Berg’s proposal “lowers taxes for the very wealthy among us and raises taxes for the middle class.”
Berg then retorted that the difference between the two candidates should be very clear to voters.
“My opponent supports higher taxes. You can’t raise taxes and grow America’s economy,” Berg said.
Heitkamp said Berg was incorrect. She said she also sees the need for a reduction of the corporate tax rate “but we need to broaden the (tax) base.”
The two were also at odds over energy policy.
“I think we can really learn a lot from North Dakota nice,” Berg said. He went on to outline the EmPower North Dakota initiative launched in the early 2000s. The initiative brought stakeholders in the fossil fuel and renewable energy sectors together, developing a state energy policy that focuses on having the various energy sectors working together rather than competing, he said.
Berg said a similar business-friendly environment is needed on the national level. He pointed to statements of anti-fossil fuels rhetoric made by Reid in the media and he said President Barack Obama has a hostile attitude toward fossil fuels.
“When the president says ‘all of the above’ what he really means is ‘nothing from below,’” Berg said.
Heitkamp said the nation’s energy policy needs to focus on fossil fuels while allowing for aggressive development of renewables.
“There has to be a path forward with renewables,” Heitkamp said.
She also expressed her disappointment with Obama’s rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline.
“It was an absolute folly on the president’s part,” Heitkamp said.
The politics surrounding the current farm bill caused the two to trade barbs.
The Senate passed a farm bill in June. The House Agriculture Committee passed its own version in July, but ultimately House leadership kept it from being brought to the floor for a vote.
“What happened is absolutely inexcusable,” Heitkamp said. She went on to accuse both House Republicans and Berg of failing to pass a farm bill before the current bill expired Sept. 30.
“Agriculture has been a non-partisan issue for the last two years,” Berg said. He noted that approximately 80 percent of the farm bill is food programs such as food stamps. Berg said the degree of food stamp cuts was the biggest sticking point between the House and Senate bills.
“Ag is important to me,” Berg said.
Berg added that House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said the farm bill will be dealt with during the lame duck session.
Heitkamp called Berg’s efforts to try and force a vote on the farm bill by getting members of Congress to sign a discharge petition was too little, too late.
“Do we have a farm bill today? The answer is no,” Heitkamp said.
The debate was sponsored by League of Women Voters, The Bismarck Tribune and Dakota Media Access.