Frelinghuysen questioned on Trumpcare vote Congressman also pressed for in-person town hall
Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ11)
By Meghan Byers MORRISTOWN — Controversy and confusion surrounding the American Health Care Act dominated the conversation this Tuesday evening during the fourth in Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen's ongoing series of "teletown halls." The legislation, which would repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, was approved by a vote of 217 to 213 in the House of Representatives last Thursday, and now moves to the Senate. Frelinghuysen (R-NJ11), who voted for the AHCA, opened the teletown hall shortly after 5 PM with "a few extended comments" addressing anticipated concerns regarding the bill, which has faced harsh criticism from both sides of the aisle. Twenty Republicans voted against the bill. "I know feelings are strong," Frelinghuysen said. "I've heard from a lot of people." He went on to call the new bill "an improved healthcare act" and briefly went over some of the more controversial aspects of the legislation, such as whether or not the bill has adequate provisions to protect those with pre-existing conditions from being denied access to healthcare. "I fully support the notion that we must protect access to care for those with pre-existing conditions," said Frelinghuysen, expressing a view he had also stated in a previous teletown hall. "Obamacare is failing across the country," the congressman said, reiterating the statement he made following his vote last Thursday. "Failing to act on our part is not an option." New Jersey's 11th District includes five Sussex County municipalities — Sparta, Byram, Stanhope, Ogdensburg, and Hopatcong. Nearly half of Tuesday evening's callers had questions or concerns related to the AHCA. One Sparta resident asked why Frelinghuysen had felt it necessary to vote on the bill before waiting for a score from the Congressional Budget Office, which provides Congress with an objective analysis of the probable effects of proposed legislation on the federal budget. The same concern was brought up again later by a caller from Denville, who asked why the bill was "pushed through in such a hurry." "Personally I think it's good to have the CBO score," Frelinghuysen said. "But I think there was a feeling that we needed to act, and get a bill to the Senate so that they could act on it." Another Sparta caller, who identified himself as "a longtime Republican," worried that the AHCA would not provide an affordable option to protect those with pre-existing conditions, including his wife. "It's cost-prohibitive," he said. Frelinghuysen restated his belief that the bill will protect those with pre-existing conditions, and added that the Senate would make any necessary changes to the legislation. About halfway through the call, FBI director James Comey, who had been overseeing the investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election, was fired by the president, a fact that one constituent brought up when inquiring how Congress would hold President Trump accountable in the event that he was found to have broken the law. "He had the reputation...of being a straight-arrow guy," said Frelinghuysen, regarding Comey. "I do think he was an honorable man and represents an amazing department. I'm surprised that he's gone, but in this business I guess nothing is too surprising." Other topics covered during the teletown hall included the Iran nuclear deal, federal funding for sanctuary cities, and property tax deductions, which the president's current tax cut plan has proposed eliminating. "I continue to support that deduction," said Frelinghuysen, calling it "absolutely critical for families." At the end of the approximately hour-long call, the congressman invited constituents to leave him a voicemail expressing any further concerns. These conference call-style town halls have drawn criticism from many constituents, notably the nonpartisan group NJ 11th for Change, which has been campaigning for Frelinghuysen to hold an in-person town hall since January of this year. The group currently has about 5,500 members. "I think he has eroded a lot of trust with this vote," said Debra Caplan, member of the NJ 11th for Change steering committee, in regards to Frelinghuysen's support of the AHCA. Despite torrential rain on the Friday following the vote, Caplan estimated that the organization's weekly "Fridays with Frelinghuysen" protest drew "well over 100 people." Frelinghuysen made reference during the teletown hall to the increased attention his office has gotten in recent months, stating that his staff has been fielding "calls from around the country full of vitriol and a lot of anger." The congressman emphasized that he supports freedom of speech, but added, "For people who have jammed our lines, it would be nice for you to back off...Some of this has been highly orchestrated, and it's unfortunate." Caplan maintained that NJ 11th for Change is seeking a respectful dialogue with their congressman – an effort which she feels has not been reciprocated. "I don't know how you can respect constituents and refuse to hold a public forum open to everybody," she said. While he has no current plans to host an in-person town hall, Frelinghuysen has made appearances at events and public schools across Northern New Jersey as part of a "listening tour." He has been accused by NJ 11th for Change members of choosing only "friendly" locations for these appearances. Caplan said she has seen "mounting anger and frustration" among group members. "We were quite hopeful at the beginning," said Caplan."But if the status quo does not change, we as an organization will work to replace him. That was not our goal in the beginning...but our mission has not changed. We want accountable, transparent, responsible representation in this district, and that may not be possible with our current representative." At the end of Tuesday's call, Frelinghuysen once again encouraged constituents to sign up for his e-newsletter updates by going to his website at https://frelinghuysen.house.gov/. Constituents can also go to the website or call the congressman's office at (973) 984-0711 to request to be included on the next teletown hall, which has not yet been scheduled.