RICHMOND — Democrat Elisabeth Jensen came out swinging Monday night in a televised debate with U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, seeking to brand him a week before the election as a do-nothing member of a gridlocked Congress.
Other than several bills to weaken bank regulations, filed at the request of his banking industry donors, nothing Barr has sponsored has made it out of the Republican-controlled House, Jensen said.
"We need something different in Washington," she told an audience of about 650 people at the EKU Center for the Arts. "He's spending a lot of time working on things in Washington and talking about things in Washington which will never actually get done."
Barr, who is finishing his first term, replied: "I don't think the people of Central and Eastern Kentucky sent me to Congress to be a pessimist. They sent me to Congress to be a reformer. And many of the most important reforms our country has ever seen were unpopular to begin with."
When Barr blamed U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., for blocking several hundred House bills that would "create hundreds of thousands of jobs," Jensen said most of those measures were give-aways for the well-connected.
"My opponent believes the only way to create jobs is through tax breaks for the wealthy and to roll back regulations," she said.
Barr and Jensen repeated their disagreement over the role of government. Jensen favors more government intervention in the economy, including a higher minimum wage, mandatory paycheck equity for women and greater federal spending on infrastructure. Barr said government should get out of the private sector's way and let it create jobs.
To the long list of federal agencies that Barr already has said he considers to be plagued by failure, on Monday he added the Secret Service, the Postal Service and the Centers for Disease Control, because of its response to the Ebola virus. Barack Obama is a failed president who has divided the country despite all of the Republicans in Congress who wanted to help him succeed, Barr said.
Jensen hit Barr repeatedly for his alliance with payday lenders, who have given tens of thousands of dollars to his campaign while he fought federal restrictions on them.
"I think my opponent's support of payday lenders is appalling," Jensen said. "For payday lenders who charge 400 to 650 percent interest and keep our hard-working families in poverty — and many servicemen — even the military is cracking down on payday lenders because they take advantage of our servicemen. It's absolutely appalling."
Jensen called for a strict federal limit on the interest rates that payday lenders may charge. She also supported a proposal by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to offer some personal-financial services through post offices, as some other countries do.
Barr declined to say whether he would support a nationwide cap on interest rates for payday lenders. But he said federal restrictions "could take away Americans' choices in financial products" and "put legitimate, law-abiding businesses out of business." That could drive borrowers into the arms of totally unregulated loan sharks, he said.
Barr mocked the idea of the Postal Service "bureaucracy" getting into the loan business. The post offices already face $50 billion in debt, he said.
"That's how we got into the last financial crisis, by giving the government a role in lending," Barr said.
Jensen responded that the post office's large debt was due to Congress requiring it to declare on its books its full pension obligations "long into the future, much more so than any other business is required to today."
On one rare subject the candidates agreed: They said the Blue Grass Army Depot near Richmond must remain as a local employer even after the chemical weapons on site are dismantled in the 2020s. Industries should be recruited to the depot so that more than 1,000 highly skilled workers continue to have employment there, Barr said.