Simpson, Swisher spar over energy, the economy and Trump at Sunday debate

Congressman Mike Simpson, left, and challenger Aaron Swisher at the Oct. 14, 2018 debate.
Congressman Mike Simpson, left, and challenger Aaron Swisher at the Oct. 14, 2018 debate. Idaho Public Television

The candidates vying to represent Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District traded barbs in a Sunday evening debate on Idaho Public Television, but found some common ground on immigration, trade and checks on the Trump administration.

Republican incumbent Rep. Mike Simpson is seeking re-election after 20 years at the post. Democratic challenger Aaron Swisher is an economist who says he can work outside party lines to address economic issues.

The debate began on an issue where Simpson and Swisher find similarities: immigration. Both support citizenship for recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And both men emphasized the importance of deterring illegal immigration, strengthening border security and adding immigration courts to speed legal proceedings for undocumented immigrants.

“I would like to see us ... give (undocumented immigrants) permanent green-card status so they can come and go,” Simpson said. “We do not make them citizens.”

Simpson acknowledged that immigration policies have progressed little in the two decades he’s been in Congress. But, he said, politicians are working toward a “sweet spot” for consensus, a refrain he repeated several times through the debate. Swisher condemned those delays along with the Idaho congressional delegation’s response to separating families at the border, calling their comments “weak.”

The economist dug in once more when the debate turned to climate change. When Simpson touted gradual legislative progress to ease the effects of climate change, Swisher called the approach “classic Mike Simpson” deflection. Simpson, the chairman of a House appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, said he plans to continue his work with the Idaho National Laboratory to further nuclear energy and would not support a hefty carbon tax.

“If you want to address climate change, you better be willing to accept nuclear power,” Simpson said, calling INL’s role “vital to the future of the country.”

Swisher pushed for solar and wind energy alternatives while leveraging a carbon tax to discourage carbon-based fuels. He said the effects of climate change will likely hit Idahoans hard.

“People who live close to the ground — dairy farmers, agriculture workers — are going to be most affected and worst affected,” he said.

Swisher advocated for continued investigations into the Trump administration, defending such work as Congress’ responsibility, not a partisan push. Simpson said he would consider investigating claims that President Trump’s business ties may violate the Constitution’s emoluments clause, but also offered support for the president.

“It’s hard to argue with the policies that have brought us the strongest economy in 50 years,” Simpson said. “... I can’t argue with his policies. Some of his behaviors bother me. Some of his tweets bother me. I wish someone would take his phone away.”

Swisher took the congressman’s comments as another chance to dig in on his economic plan, refuting Simpson’s claims of a strong economy and questioning why Republicans have failed to balance the budget while in power.

“If our economy is so strong, why can’t Idahoans afford health care or pay their student loans or afford houses?” Swisher asked.

The candidates clashed again on education funding, which Simpson said is “primarily a state responsibility.” Swisher proposed another tax option — a bracket for millionaires — but demurred on specifics for improving education in Idaho.

Swisher called for a single-payer health care system with an optional Medicare-for-all structure, while Simpson pushed again for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, to create more competition in the health care marketplace. Swisher attacked that plan, pointing to this fall’s Proposition 2 vote on expanding Medicaid in Idaho.

“Hundreds of thousands of Idahoans don’t want you to repeal Obamacare because they’re trying to close the Medicaid gap,” Swisher said.

Both Simpson and Swisher voiced support for Trump’s renegotiated NAFTA plan. But where Swisher advocated for tariffs, Simpson balked.

“I’m not in favor of tariffs. I think it’s a hidden tax that consumers pay,” the congressman said, adding that NAFTA dealings thus far have made him nervous.

Simpson closed the debate with a call for civility across party lines. Swisher stated that his opponent’s 20 years in Congress were enough.

“Send me to Washington. If I’m not making progress, throw me out, too,” Swisher said.