U.S. Rep. Kevin Yoder weighed in on gun violence, gay rights and a range of other topics during his town hall in Olathe Tuesday night.
The town hall was hosted by The Star’s editorial board. Yoder, an Overland Park Republican, faced questions from participants who had been randomly selected and from viewers who submitted additional questions on Facebook.
The topics of health care and President Donald Trump’s performance during his first year in office dominated much of the evening, but the congressman also gave constituents insight into his views on tax reform, the war in Afghanistan and a host of other issues.
Here are some highlights.
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The issue of gun violence, including racially and politically-motivated attacks that have taken place in Kansas and around U.S., repeatedly came up during the event in Olathe, where an engineer from India was murdered earlier this year allegedly because the shooter thought he was Middle Eastern.
“Our Congress came together this summer as it does sometimes during tragedy when one of my colleagues, Steve Scalise, was shot by a person who had a list of Republicans that he wanted to kill. That’s sort of another realm. That’s beyond what we’re used to in terms of the anger in this country,” Yoder said in response to a question about increased division in the country. “And so we’ve got to — all of us — work together to solve this problem.”
Later in the town hall, Yoder faced a series of questions about the country’s gun laws, which are significantly looser than other developed countries, and made his opposition to new gun restrictions clear.
“I don’t think the answer is restricting rights for law-abiding Americans,” Yoder said. “Restricting their second amendment rights isn’t going to make them feel any safer. When I go to Washington, D.C., I’m in the biggest gun-free zone probably anywhere in America. You’re not allowed to carry a gun in Washington, D.C. And there’s areas there where you might want to, but you’re not allowed to protect yourself. That’s not the country I want to live in.”
A young man stood up and complained that when a shooting happens politicians offer prayers and talk about mental health, but that nothing is done to take guns away.
“We have a tragedy and the one side says, well, all you guys are doing is praying,” Yoder said in response. “And the other side says, well, all you guys are doing is dreaming up a new gun regulation that wouldn’t have affected the shooting. So I think we need to have an honest dialogue about what our rights are as Americans and what would have had an impact.”
Yoder weighed in on next month’s debt ceiling vote when talking to reporters before the start of the event.
The country will be unable to pay its bills unless Congress raises the ceiling on its $19.8 trillion debt next month. Yoder said he favors a bill that would include policy reforms rather than a “clean bill” that only raises the ceiling, but he said it was not a “100 percent condition” for his vote.
“I’ve always believed that debt ceiling increases should not be automatic but rather should be an opportunity to force Congress, the American people to have a dialogue about our national debt and determine ways in which we can reduce that spending,” Yoder said. “So of course I’ll be looking for, as I always do, reforms to bring down that debt that’s being passed onto all of our kids and grandkids.”
Later in the town hall, Yoder was asked to identify an agency that he thinks is engaging in wasteful spending and he first pointed to the Environmental Protection Agency, which led to scattered boos in the audience.
“The EPA is one that I think has had a number of bloated expenses,” Yoder said. “Listen, I think there are cuts we can make in the Department of Defense. I think there’s bureaucracy and waste in the Department of Defense. I don’t think this is immune to a Republican-type agency or a Democrat-type agency. The federal government is expensive and bloated.”
Yoder faced a question about whether he supported GOP efforts to cut taxes after the collapse of Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax experiment in Kansas after years of budget problems in his home state.
“I think all of us want tax reform. I know a lot of Democrats who want tax reform. I know a lot of Republicans who want tax reform. We want simplification. We want it to be fair. We want it to be flatter,” Yoder said.
“Of course the devil’s in the detail. I’m not one of these who believes that you just cut taxes as deep as you want and revenue just pours in,” Yoder said in a subtle reference to the budget problems in Kansas. “I believe that we should pay for any tax cuts we want with off-setting reductions in exemptions or other reforms in government. … I also believe in tax reform that it must be focused on everyone. Tax reform that only helps certain people is not tax reform for all of us.”
Yoder faced a question from a young woman who noted that he had never sponsored any legislation to expand LGBT rights. She asked him why LGBT Kansans aren’t worthy of protection from employment or housing discrimination.
Kansas is a state without any law prohibiting employers or landlords from discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. No federal law exists either, but 20 states and the District of Columbia have laws that ban discrimination for sexual orientation and gender identity in both the private and public sector.
“I don’t believe that we should discriminate against anybody for any reason, so if we need to look at additional laws to do that, of course, I’m certainly open to that. I don’t want to create new opportunities for litigation,” Yoder said. “I don’t want to create opportunities for trial lawyers to take advantage of that situation, but if people are being taken advantage of or discriminated against it’s wrong.”
Yoder added that he opposes Trump’s decision to restrict transgender soldiers from serving in the military, but that he also opposes having the military pay for sex changes.
Yoder’s town hall came a day after Trump gave an address on the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, promising an increase in troops without providing specific details about deployment numbers or a timeline for the mission.
“I thought the president laid out a strategy to try to go resolve this, to try to go win this. I think the artificial timetables, the declaration of withdrawals, the specific troop levels has telegraphed to our enemies to wait us out and has had the wrong standard by which we gauge success. The success we want is the safety and security of everybody in this room,” Yoder said.
“We shed lives of our own constituents, people that I’ve known personally, that I’ve cried with their families, have sacrificed. We don’t want that to be in vain.”