Social Security policies took center stage once again for Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Waco, and Republican rival Bill Flores during the first debate of the Texas District 17 Congressional election Sunday night in Waco.
Flores, a retired businessman from Bryan, Texas, spent much of the debate attempting to reconcile conflicting accounts of his views on Social Security policy. The Edwards campaign has continued to hammer Flores for retracting a statement he made supporting an increase in the retirement age and then blaming his mistake on a headache.
Though he has voiced support for private Social Security accounts, Flores stresses that this is not the same as privatizing Social Security--a move seniors in Congressional District 17 vehemently oppose.
"In terms of privatization, having private accounts does not necessarily include privatizing all of Social Security," Flores said. "But we've got to fix it. We need to protect these programs for today's recipients as well as for those not even born yet. We should look at how to better handle the trust fund."
Creating private Social Security accounts would take trillions of dollars out of the Social Security Trust Fund and would be unfair to seniors who currently depend on that fund for their care, Edwards said.
"Social Security and Medicare are a sacred bond we should not break with our seniors," he said. "I don't think we ought to balance our budget on the backs of elderly citizens in our district, including veterans."
While Edwards would fight for a cost of living adjustment for seniors, Flores said it wouldn't be "fiscally prudent," and that the COLA adjustment built into the current Social Security formula should suffice.
Edwards, who has spoken with seniors in District 17 about rising living expenses and the cost of food, said a COLA adjustment is essential; but Flores believes the way to strengthen Social Security is to work on growing the American economy.
"The best way to improve the financial status of Social Security is to put more people to work and have more payroll taxes going into the Social Security Trust Fund," Flores said. "Another way to improve the sanctity of Social Security is to keep Congress from raiding the trust fund. The federal government has reached in and spent the money and left an IOU."
Flores has repeatedly voiced his disapproval of the stimulus bill, which Edwards voted yes to in Congress. The country is not coming out of the recession the way it has in the past because of excessive spending on the part of the federal government, Flores maintained.
But according to local economist Ray Perryman, 3,000 jobs were saved or created in district 17 with the passing of the stimulus bill, Edwards contended.
"The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said the private market sector desperately needed a jumpstart," Edwards said. "By opposing the stimulus bill, Mr. Flores would have voted no on a $1600 tax cut for 95 percent of working families in our district, 2,000 new jobs and most importantly, a much-needed, much-deserved hospital for our Fort Hood soldiers."
Flores, who has emphasized ties between Edwards and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi throughout the campaign, challenged Edwards' claim to be a fiscal conservative, portraying his voting record as one consistent with wasteful spending, supportive of a broken earmark process and not concerned enough with a balanced budget.
"Earmarks are a system of a larger problem in Washington, and that's a broken appropriations process," Flores said. "The process needs to be transparent and say how much it's going to cost, to whom it's going, and how much taxpayers are going to get from it. It's important that we treat these precious dollars as they should be."
Edwards, who has held his seat in the House of Representatives for 20 years, touted his track record as a bipartisan official and endorsements from conservative organizations like the National Rifle Association and Texas Farm Bureau as evidence of his independent mindset.
"If all these conservative voices are right, then Bill Flores is wrong," Edwards said. "And that's the truth. I've been proud to be an independent-minded voice, fighting for jobs, educational opportunities, and the benefits our seniors deserve."
Flores said that if voters are satisfied with the direction the country is being led under the Obama administration, then they should vote for Edwards, but encouraged the public to restore the American dream by voting for his campaign.
The Waco Tribune-Herald, KXXV-TV Channel 25 and KRHD-TV Channel 40 in Bryan sponsored the Sunday night debate and it was streamed live on www.kxxv.com.
The two candidates will face off again at a 6:30 p.m. Monday night debate at the Briarcrest Country Club in Bryan.