The three GOP candidates for Arkansas’ 4th District Congressional seat appeared to be in agreement on virtually all issues at Tuesday night’s debate at the University of Arkansas at Monticello. Candidates Tom Cotton, Beth Anne Rankin and John Cowart, who hope to replace Democratic Congressman Mike Ross, were asked a series of questions ranging from Social Security and “Obama Care” to  free trade and job creation.  They were also asked to distinguish themselves from each other.

Cotton pointed to his leadership abilities in having led men in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, working with “some of America’s most respected companies”, and his legal training as a graduate of Harvard Law School.

“So, I think I have a solid foundation of preparing to represent the Fourth District in Congress,” Cotton said. “I hope that I’m nominated and win the election but if Beth Anne or John is our nominee I’ll be working to help elect them in the fall because they’re good people and they’re good candidates.”

Cowart, a member of the U.S. Marine Corps and a police officer in Texarkana, cited his experience in handling crisis and high stress situations.

“Over the next two years, whoever you send to Washington is going to be confronted – just like your congressman was in 2008 – and told that he has to do something that the voters aren’t going to like because there is a crisis; and they’re going to be pushed, they’re going to be pushed to the limit, and you can look at my background and see that… I have been tested by high stress situations,” Cowart said. “There’s no way to accurately predict what kind of pressure and what kind of decisions your congressman is going to be pressed to make, so whatever it is, you need to pick somebody that your gut tells you that this is the guy that’s not going to blink.”

Rankin cited her seven years experience working in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s office, her experience as a small business owner, and facing a “giant” (Mike Ross) in the 2010 Fourth District congressional election.

While Arkansas’ 33-county Fourth Congressional District is extremely diverse and as large as the state of West Virginia, Cotton says he has found that it has more in common than some believe.

“For instance, the timber industry is very critical all across South Arkansas but the timber industry is robust, as well, in the river valley where I’m from,” Cotton said. “Oil and gas is an engine for the South Arkansas economy, it always has been going back to the 1920s, and it could be a super-charged engine if the lower Smackover Brown Dense actually becomes feasible. In the northern part of the district we have traditional gas in the river valley and even shale gas further north of that.

“Agriculture is also very important regardless of where you go in the Fourth District, whether it is row-cropping in some of the eastern counties or poultry or cattle farming and there’s a good manufacturing base in places like Sebastian County and Crawford County and Hot Spring County and Miller County,” Cotton said. “So, we have a lot to unite us.”

He said there is a lot that can be done to represent the interests of the entire district and, if elected, he intends to do that.

On the question of job creation in the Fourth District, Cotton said there are several things that can be done on the federal level, specifically, reform the federal tax code, the regulatory system and reduce federal spending.

“Right now the tax code is riddled with too many loopholes for the wealthy and the well-connected,” Cotton said. “That means that tax rates are higher for everyone, which prevents companies from expanding their job base. Second, we need to reform our regulatory system – regulations from agencies like the EPA, Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and Federal Reserve act as an anchor on companies that are trying to grow their workforce. Finally, we need to reduce spending because the more the federal government spends, the less the private sector has to spend and invest and grow their workforce.”

On the local level, Cotton says South Arkansas’ infrastructure hasn’t always received the attention it needs.

“For instance, I-69 built through South Arkansas would make it a more attractive site for employers to be based here so they can move their materials out and move raw materials in,” Cotton said. “Dredging the Arkansas River to a 12-foot depth so barge traffic could have several hundred more tons would make for a very good infrastructure here in South Arkansas.”

And, ensuring that the EPA doesn’t regulate hydraulic fracturing in the Smackover Brown Dense can lead to the kind of economic boon that they’ve seen in South Texas with the Eagle Ford or North Dakota with the Bakken shale, Cotton said.

“So, there’s a lot of things we can do at the national level but also right here in South Arkansas to ensure that some of the best workers in America can stay right here and get the jobs they need,” Cotton said.

Rankin agreed that the federal government is standing in the way of job creation. As the daughter of an economist, she said she learned that the best jobs program is the free market.

“We have an administration that is literally choking the life out of the free enterprise system in America,” she said, adding that there are 109 new major regulations “ready to come down the pike right now… with this new administration.”

Echoing Cotton’s remarks about the Environmental Protection Agency, Cowart said his first approach in job creation would be to address EPA policies.

“What Congress can do is create a predictable business environment for companies that want to explore natural resources,” Cowart said. “Right here on our own continent we have enough natural gas and enough oil, including shale oil, to last for 100 years. So I think what we need to do is stop funding research on these experimental types of energy and focus instead on proven resources such as shale oil and shale gas. Fortunately for Arkansas, focusing on shale oil and shale gas will bring jobs to our state.”

Responding to a question about how to best address the instability of Social Security and ensure that it will continue to exist, Rankin focused on the cause of the problem, while Cotton suggested introducing some degree of personal control over retirement accounts, and both Cotton and Cowart suggested raising the retirement age of future generations to reflect longer life expectancies.

Rankin said a “fat cat federal government that cannot help or restrain itself has dipped its greedy little paws into the Social Security Trust Fund and has literally raided the money out of that to fund other pet programs that then have to continuously be sustained through the national Treasury.

“That’s wrong,” she said. “So, number one: stop the bleeding. We’ve got to make sure that people understand that even I, as a candidate, have paid into that system for 20 years. So when I visit with seniors all across the fourth district of Arkansas, I assure them that they have a champion as someone who doesn’t want to dismantle Social Security, but to save it. But, in order to save it we’ve got to have that conversation. We’ve got to look at options for our newest payees coming into the system, our newest workers, our newest earners. We got to have to have that conversation of what we can do, especially as the baby boomers continue to retire. Almost 10,000 new retirees a day continue to go onto the system. We’ve got to make some hard choices on how we do that but one of the things we have to do is reassure our population out there that we are committed that a promise made is a promise kept.”

The promise of Social Security was made first, Rankin said, other programs dependent upon the Social Security Trust Fund came in “after the fact.”

“That’s unconscionable,” she said. “The government did it. The government needs to fix it.”

Commenting further, Rankin said high unemployment is contributing to the problem because there are fewer workers paying into the system.

Responding to the same question, Cowart said the retirement age for those born in 1970, or later, is going to have to be raised.

“In 1962, the worker-retiree ratio was 5-to-1, today it’s 3-to-1. By the time you (the UAM student panelist posing the question) and I get ready to retire it’s going to be 2-to-1,” Cowart said. “So, in order to make the system sustainable, people born in 1970 or later, like myself, are going to have to realize that the retirement age is going to have to be raised for the system to remain solvent.”

Commenting further, Cowart said the Roe v. Wade decision has resulted in fewer workers paying into the retirement system.

“Since 1973, over 54 million Americans have not been allowed to be born,” Cowart said. “So I support Sen. Rand Paul’s bill to protect life by defining a fetus as a person and therefore they will be protected by the 14th Amendment and that will improve the long-term health of the Social Security system by providing new workers to support the system… I feel very strongly that Roe v. Wade has negatively impacted the Social Security system.”

Cotton said first and foremost, Social Security must be protected for those approaching retirement who have spent a lifetime paying into the system.

But for future generations, changes are needed. “As John (Cowart) mentioned, we’re going to have to start gradually raising the retirement age to reflect extended life expectancies,” Cotton said. “We’re also going to have to introduce some degree of personal control over Social Security accounts like 401K accounts… to put it back on solvent financial footing and give seniors a higher rate of return and give you control over personal investment choices. So, there’s a few options for protecting for today’s seniors and fixing it for tomorrow’s seniors.”

Asked what kind of legislation the candidates would support to reduce the federal deficit, all three said the federal government needs a balanced budget amendment.

All three also support the expansion of free trade agreements but the United States needs strong measures to ensure that fair trade agreements are enforced so domestic businesses can conduct without fear of unfair competition.

“Arkansas benefits greatly from free trade agreements,” Cotton said. “We export billions of dollars a year in aviation parts and rice and cotton, catfish and poultry but we have to negotiate hard. I support the recent agreements with Panama, Columbia and South Korea… but Congress has to watch the executive branch to ensure that they are negotiating as hard as they can.”

Regarding earmarks on appropriation bills, Cowart said he wishes “every dime” was earmarked.

“I wish that Congress had to prove how every dime was spent but in terms of cutting wasteful spending and cutting projects such as the ‘bridge to nowhere.’ Obviously I, like every other American who has common sense, want that sort of thing to end,” Cowart said. “So, in terms of the popular jargon, I’m totally against earmarks.”

Cotton said he supports a permanent ban on earmarks.

“Frankly, I think earmarks often times are not for constituents,” Cotton said. “Earmarks are for politicians. Politicians use earmark spending to favor constituencies back home that are critical to their election. Often times it is not critical to the community but they put the Tom Cotton bridge up, or the Beth Anne Rankin wildlife reserve, or the John Cowart bypass. But, voters see it every day and it’s an advantage of incumbency that I don’t support.”

During the 2010 election when she ran against Mike Ross, Rankin said she was a “war-horse” on the moratorium on earmark spending because there had been a lot of wasteful earmarks.

“It has been said that there are good earmarks and there are bad earmarks,” Rankin said. “Unfortunately there are bad earmarks out there that do come in misguided places and at the level of debt that this country was operating in, and is operating in today, I think it was critical that congressional leaders lead the way. I supported the moratorium and will continue to support the moratorium until we get our fiscal house in order.”

Asked if they agree with President Obama’s concept of American exceptionalism.

Obama was quoted as saying he believes in American exceptionalism just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.

“I disagree with what the president meant because I think the president believes we are exceptionally bad and that’s why he’s going all over the world apologizing for us,” Cowart said. “We need to get rid of a president that thinks we need to apologize. We need to get a president in there that is proud of America.”

Cotton said the president’s comments indicate that he believes we are no more exceptional than other countries who believe their country is exceptional.

“I disagree,” Cotton said. “I think that America is exceptional.”

Calling America the “hope of the Earth”, Rankin said America holds the torch of freedom and liberty.

“As an American, I believe that America is the best nation on the face of the Earth and I think it’s time we stand on those principles and support the nation that we love so much today,” she said.

The candidates also weighed in on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obama Care.

All three say it is unconstitutional and should be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court or repealed.

The debate was moderated by Curtis Coleman, chairman of the Institute for Constitutional Policy. Panelists were Samantha Montgomery, a member of the political honor society Phi Sigma Alpha, Patty Wooten, owner of Seark Today, and David Johnson, vice chairman of the Ashley County Republican Party.

The event was sponsored by the Drew County Republican Party, Phi Sigma Alpha, and the Institute for Constitutional Policy.