Rep. William L. Owens is defending himself against charges of political opportunism by turning the line of questioning around: Why not fight for the interests of the north country's congressional district?
“I'm confused as to why anyone would attack a member of Congress for representing their constituents,” Mr. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, said of criticism from Republican Matthew A. Doheny that, while right on the merits, was wrong in the way he came to support the repeal of a tax hike.
For the residents of Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, the particulars of the debate over an excise tax on medical device manufacturers is largely inconsequential. Neither Mr. Owens nor Mr. Doheny, who will face off in a Nov. 6 election, could point to any medical device manufacturers in the tri-county area that it would affect.
But the debate shed light on the way that the two men approach problems — about whether the distirct comes first, and also about Mr. Owens' thought process on President Obama's 2010 health care overhaul.
Included in Mr. Obama's legislation was the 2.3 tax on the profits of medical device manufacturers to help pay for the bill. Mr. Owens said he read the entirety of the bill, and voted to approve it. He said that he remembers reading about the tax, but it didn't raise any alarms, because nobody was complaining about it locally.
That changed in March, when Tony Maglione, an official at a medical device company in Mr. Owens' hometown of Plattsburgh, approached the congressman at a town hall event in the city.
Mr. Maglione warned that the tax could stifle job creation in the region and would hurt Monaghan Medical Corp., which helps make asthma inhalers.
By late April, Mr. Owens told Mr. Maglione that he would sign on as a co-sponsor to repeal the legislation — a matter that could come up for a vote in the House this week.
“I was pretty happy about it. I'm pretty involved in politics,” said Mr. Maglione, who is a Republican.“Getting a Democrat to support it... There's probably enough votes in the House to get it passed, but it's still relatively close.”
In May, though, Mr. Doheny issued a news release calling this evolution “crass opportunism.”
Mr. Doheny said that Mr. Owens supports the repeal of a medical device tax “only at the 11th hour when he has constituents coming to him in a district that he's worried about, in an election year.”
Like Mr. Owens, Mr. Doheny said he supports repealing the tax, but unlike Mr. Owens, Mr. Doheny wants to get rid of Mr. Obama's health care law in its entirety.
Mr. Doheny parried a question about his own calculus if he were elected to Congress — whether he would put the district first, or national policy first.
“I think it's a false choice,” he said.
He added: “My policy and chief focus is going to be on creating economic growth and jobs... (while) at the same time, making sure that the specific unique needs of the district are met.”
Mr. Owens, on the other hand, said that it's a three-step analysis for him.
“The way I analyze the process, when an issue comes up, I first look to see the local impact,”he said.
After he looks at the local effect, he looks at the cost, he said. Then he starts thinking about national ramifications.
Mr. Owens said that his process for reviewing Mr. Obama's health care law in 2009 — which he eventually voted for — was thorough and that he took it seriously. He sent a White House staffer a list of 20 questions, though one about the medical device tax wasn't among them — mostly, they were questions about the bill's proposed state-by-state health care exchanges and its proposed health savings accounts.
The legislation has been amended a few times since it was first passed in 2009. Republicans are quick to point out when that happens, because opinion polls show it's not very popular. But it's not fundamentally flawed, Mr. Owens said.
“We amend bills all the time,” Mr. Owens said.“This happens literally every day on the floor of the House. To say that the fact that you're amending this bill somehow goes to the basic tenets of the bill is just simply not accurate.”