Congresswoman Kristi Noem held an all-too-rare town hall in Rapid City on Saturday. With good weather and the Stockman's Show competing for folks' attention, only several dozen people, hardly half the hall at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology "Classroom Building," came to hear our Congresswoman show us what she knows. You'll find full video of the event below (which is why this page takes so long to load! Sorry about that!).
I've seen Kristi Noem in two extended live performances: her State Fair debate with Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and B. Thomas Marking a year and a half ago and her town hall yesterday. After over a year on the job in Washington, Rep. Noem gives me the same impression she did in Huron: she's a lightweight, in over her head.
To be honest, as I watched Kristi recite her budget slideshow and cobble together old talking points in response to questions, she reminded me of me. I'm teaching high school French right now on a two-decades-old French minor, a flair for accents, and a lot of heart. I've been hitting the books since August, getting up to speed on the passé composé and French prepositions. But I continue to tremble at the prospect of live, authentic French-language situations that will expose my limited vocabulary and experience.
Of course, one key difference is that I'm relearning my French and dancing on the pedagogical high-wire on my own. Congresswoman Kristi Noem has a few hundred thousand dollars' worth of Congressional staffers to help her become a policy whiz. And so far, they haven't succeeded. They could probably sit her down in front of C-SPAN for an hour a day to make her sound more prepared.
Rather than becoming a policy expert, Noem prefers to keep singing karaoke.
Noem opened the town hall with a 15-minute slideshow presenting the basics of the federal budget and the national debt. She showed us a federal debt ticker, some form of which I suspect every Tea Partier in the room at this Tea Party-sponsored event has seen and forwarded to everyone in his or her address book. But even though she is a United States Congresswoman, she can't pick the official tally from the Treasury. She might at least have displayed the cool global debt map from The Economist, which puts our national debt in much better perspective and would have made a much more dramatic slide.
Noem's paucity of policy knowledge shone through her slideshow and her responses to audience questions. Her 15-minute slideshow avoided any real policy details. She defended her vote to gut Medicare without mentioning plan author Rep. Paul Ryan by name and without discussing any of the specific changes she wanted to make to the program.
Asked by a Ron Paul supporter about the indefinite detention and suspicious terrorism provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act, Rep. Noem asked puzzledly if he was talking about an actual law that had been passed. President Obama signed it on December 31. Congresswoman Kristi Noem herself voted for it on December 14. (Conservative basket case Lori Stacey points out Noem voted for NDAA twice.)
Good grief: NDAA has been riling Ron/Rand Paul followers and other Tea Party types for months. If you're going to a Tea Party town hall, you have your staffers brief you, and you have an answer ready, right?
Asked by another Paul man whether she agrees with the list of agencies Rep. Paul says he'd like to close, Noem is again caught unread and unprepared. I'll give her a pass on not paying attention to the details of everything Ron Paul says, but Noem isn't even ready to enunciate her own vision of how to downsize government. Instead of rattling off her own targets for closure, Noem just offers the empty tweet that all agencies deserve scrutiny. Heck, even Rick Perry could think of two agencies to close off the top of his musty head.
Another questioner trumps Rep. Noem by offering his own laundry lists of budget cuts he's like to see. He punctuates that list with a call to end unconstitutional wars, which draws applause from the audience. Rep. Noem totally evades the war question. She mutters about foreign aid but names no specific countries. She uses the questioner's mention of bailouts to pivot to her tired campaign-trail story about her little boy Booker's reaction to her simple explanation of bailouts, but she never addresses a specific bailout that harmed the country or that she would somehow undo.
On a question about Lora-Hubbel-style paranoia about drivers license databases, Rep. Noem totally misses the point that the federal laws she wants to enforce are forcing South Dakota to enforce the drivers license regulations that so outrage the questioner. Rep. Noem also omits any mention of the fact that she voted for those drivers license rules in the South Dakota Legislature in 2009.
Asked by Tonchi Weaver about getting Congressional approval to allow the states to dodge ObamaCare, Noem says, "I'd absolutely take a look at it," a remarkably non-committal answer considering the audience and her avowed desire to repeal ObamaCare, but then reveals she is absolutely clueless about the laws South Dakota has already put in place to comply with ObamaCare. Apparently troubled by her own ignorance, Noem turns to some prepared folksy lines about an unsourced poll on public suspicion of bureaucrats and the sheer lie people "no longer have any decisions over their health care" under ObamaCare. Again, no specifics, no evidence, just empty lines designed for crowd approval.
On a question about whether unemployment benefits cause people not to seek work, Rep. Noem turns to talk about the increase in the number of discouraged workers, the formal category of folks who are not actively seeking work. Um, just checking here: if you're not actively seeking work, you're not eligible for unemployment benefits, are you? Rep. Noem's response thus completely misses the thesis of the question. (Bonus: Rep. Noem then says we ought to drug test recipients of unemployment benefits... since obviously, if you're not working, you must be scum.)
When my neighbor from Buffalo County, rancher Bret Clanton, asks Rep. Noem to keep in mind the travails of landowners facing eminent domain at the hands of TransCanada, she says she's heard others express concerns, but she offers no policy assurances of any sort. "Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Thank you. Appreciate that." Nice, but still no mention of a specific desire to protect the private property rights of South Dakotans against the predations of a foreign oil company.
When a Rapid City teacher expresses alarm at the lack of priority placed on education policy and funding, Rep. Noem enunciates no clear policy vision for improving schools. She simply retreats to her safe saws about reducing federal government regulation.
When a Rapid City Air Force retiree speaks of increased costs for TriCare premiums, a lack of information, and proposals from Senators McCain and Coburn to push military retirees off TriCare, Rep. Noem says she had no idea such proposals were being floated.
[Correction based on comment below! Sorry, Bob!] Some guy who I thought looked a heck of a lot like Bob Ellis stood up and griped about California's 1980 "power grab" to gain more representatives (yeah, a power grab carried out by having more babies and growing the state population). He asked Rep. Noem if she was aware of any initiative to amend the Constitution and mandate at least two representatives for each state. Noem hadn't heard of anything like that.
Ed Randazzo finally got up to give Kristi the business. He asked her to step away from Speaker Boehner and join the Tea Party Caucus. In a wild distortion of the truth, Rep. Noem said "that has nothing to do with Speaker Boehner. I don't have any allegiance to Speaker Boehner when it comes to that." She then said she hasn't joined the Tea Party Caucus because she asked them for a mission statement and never got one.
Quick quiz, dear readers: what do you think the Tea Party Caucus mission is? Any wild guesses? Do you really need a piece of paper to tell you, after three years, what the Tea Party stands for? And if you don't know, and if you're even vaguely interested in joining, and if you're a member of Congress, do you think you might have time over the course of thirteen months to walk down to caucus leader Michele Bachmann's office and ask for a copy?
When Kristi Noem peppers every other sentence with an emphatic reallyÂ or trulyÂ or definitely, when she respondsÂ to every other question with that hint of puzzlement and the assertion that either she'll look into or that we need to look at all options, when she fails to take a definite stand on specific policy questions, I hear a novice debater desperate to make a few cards handed to her by the varsity kids sound more important and weighty than they are. Ask Kristi to talk about real policy or evidence or anything other than whatever pops into head, and she's lost.
Yesterday's town hall made clear that, if South Dakota wants intelligent, studious, policy-oriented representation in Washington, it needs to replace Kristi Noem with someone ready to do the job.
Video of February 4, 2012, town hall (nearly full event, in chronological order, with some breaks):
2. Noem on the budget ceiling vote:
6. Paranoia: drivers licenses, immigration, and the state-federal run-around:
7. Actual budget cuts, or just slowing the increase?
9. VA funding:
10. Math is hard for KristiÂ (insert cheerleader laugh here)... but let's hear more about spending cuts, tax cuts, and stimulus:
11. Let's stick it those gosh darned freeloading, pot-smoking unemployed people:
12. Rancher Bret Clanton asks for support for landowners facing eminent domain along the Keystone XL pipeline route:
13. Rapid City teacher asks about education funding and policy:
14. Kristi gets another shot at veterans policy, shows continued ignorance:
15. Citizen: Hey, Kristi, how about Congress subject itself to same laws as rest of country. Kristi: huh? what?
16. Screw the Founding Fathers! I want more Congresspeople!
17. Social Security is not an entitlement, electronic health records are not secure, government is involved in too much! Get rid of government, and everything will be fine, just like in Somalia!
18. Come on, Kristi! Join the Tea Party Caucus! But I don't know what they stand for... and they haven't sent me a nice enough invitation yet.
20. Everything Obama and Dems do is evil! You're just wonderful, Kristi! Keep up the good work passing bills that go nowhere!