Coffee with the Congressman

Coffee with the Congressman

Jim Moran meets voters at a Del Ray coffeehouse.

Starting 15 minutes late — what he called “Del Ray time” —U.S, Rep. Jim Moran (D-8) slowly began the ritual of modern American politics, the: town-hall forum. For more than two hours last Saturday morning the eight-term congressman submitted himself to the questions of voters at St. Elmo’s Coffee Pub on Mount Vernon Avenue. Area residents were concerned about a wide-ranging host of issues: immigration, health care, transportation and litter. But one issue — the war in Iraq and America’s diminished role in the world — overshadowed the others.

“We have the ability to be the Athens of the modern world,” Moran said. “But we’re perceived as Sparta.”

The classical allusion was one that Moran has made many times in the past few years. It’s a frequent critique of the Bush administration, which put together a “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq in March 2003. Although the president justified the war by claiming that Iraq was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, none were found after American forces began an occupation that eventually spiraled out of control into a violent insurgency that now threatens to devolve into a civil war.

“We could lead the world into the 21st century,” Moran said. “Instead, we’re doing just the opposite.”

Moran took several questions about the war in Iraq, railing against what he said was the president’s unwillingness to adhere to the principles of restraint laid out by the country’s founders. He brought copies of the Constitution to give to participants at St. Elmo’s — gifts to his constituents, many of whom said that they think that Bush’s crusade in the Middle East has been a dangerous misadventure that has weakened America’s position in the world.

“We are less secure today than we were five years ago,” Moran said, responding to one of the questioners. “And let’s nor forget that all the money for Iraq has been borrowed.”

ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS, Moran drew relationships between the war and the economy, bridging a gap between the growing national debt and the Bush agenda. In 2002, he said, Bush’s tax cuts turned a $126 billion annual surplus into a $158 billion deficit over a single year. Since that time, Moran explained, Bush has set record deficits each year he has been in office. In 2005, the annual deficit of $427 billion brought the total debt to $8 trillion. Moran said that Bush’s increasing reliance on debt would create a problem for future generations.

“It’s a scandal,” Moran said. “Our children are going to be paying for this.”

Moran was critical of many of the Bush administration’s initiatives, including the warrantless wiretaps that the National Security Agency is using to listen to domestic calls.

“He has no executive authority to do that. What the administration is doing is unconstitutional,” Moran said. “That’s why I brought the Constitution.”

He also brought up the recent revelation that the administration has been collecting telephone records from several telephone companies. Moran said that one company — Quest — has refused to cooperate with the National Security Agency’s request for phone records.

“Quest is located over in Arlington,” said Moran, whose congressional district stretches into neighboring Arlington. “So you ought to send them a postcard if you agree with them.”

RICHARD FISHER raised his hand to raise a question, but Moran asked him to come to the front and address the audience. Fisher is an Annandale dentist who has been battling the dental industry to prevent the use of mercury fillings. He says that such fillings are toxic and have been linked to autism.

“This man is a hero,” Moran said, putting his hand on the dentist’s back. “You should be aware of this.”

When Fisher returned to his seat, Moran said that he supported a bill to phase out the use of mercury in fillings. As soon as the bill was filed, he said, the American Dental Association called to voice opposition.

“No more more political contributions,” he said. “No more support. Just like that.”

OTHER TOPICS that were raised by members of the audience were an increase of litter (Moran said everybody should do their part to pick up trash), a potential war with Iran (he said that the idea of a nuclear confrontation was “nuts”), bunker buster bombs (he said that using them could start World War III), Palestinian Anti-Terror Act (he said that he would not become a co-sponsor), the minimum wage (he said he wants to raise it) and illegal immigration.

“I don’t agree with the people who want to build a 700-mile wall,” he said. “To do something like that, we would need to use the very illegal laborers they are trying to deport.”

After the forum was over, members of the audience mingled with each other and Moran’s staff. Karl Boettcher, who sat toward the front during the entire event, said the he was impressed that the congressman would spend so much time answering questions from voters.

“This was a really excellent event,” he said. “It’s a tremendous way to get at the grassroots.”