It was a meeting that ranged from sequestration to the Affordable Care Act to the federal budget deficit and U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Westville, who represents much of eastern Oklahoma in Congress, was there to answer every question at the Wagon Wheel Express in Muldrow.
Constituents did not waste time asking about national issues that have trickled down to impact people on the ground in Oklahoma, including the recent closure of some parks and recreation areas managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Mullin said the closures were a result of "the government at its best," adding that sequestration, or a budget cut across all areas of government versus targeted cuts, was not the ideal way to deal with the budget deficit or the Congress' inability to pass a budget.
Even though he does not support the method used to cut the Corps' budget, Mullin said the Corps job is not recreation, but is instead to focus on the movement of commerce, something he says is at risk along the Arkansas River through Oklahoma and Arkansas.
"Their main job is to open the water ways for our commerce to be transported from point A to point B, so we have to prioritize where they spend money," Mullin said. "Our locks on the navigational channel has a 50/50 chance of failing at any given day. If any of those locks close and fail, that's around $2 million per day to Oklahoma's economy of commerce getting in and out. So they have to prioritize."
The freshman congressman said meetings with groups from Oklahoma and Arkansas have taken place to address the problems with the locks on the navigation system, which begins in Catoosa, Okla., and ends where the Arkansas River meets the Mississippi River.
Mullin said the Corps has also been aggressively lobbying Congress for funding for the system, recalling his first meetings with the Corps in January.
"They've been to DC, we've been to their office, they've been to locations, we've been to locations with them, I've personally been multiple times with them," he said, adding that the Corps' budget simply does not allow for much in the way of maintenance, much less recreation items.
"When I got their numbers, they don't even have the funds to build or make the repairs needed to the locks. And so we're in discussion with Arkansas, and two weeks ago we met with Arkansas and Oklahoma – our delegations came together to work with the Corps to say, 'If a lock closes down, the Corps doesn't have the funds. The states and local businesses can be able to come together and form the money and equipment to get those locks back open because it's our economy that's going to suffer."
Chief of Public Affairs Martie Cenkci of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said by telephone from Dallas that there have been several meetings between the Corps and outside groups.
UPDATED INFO: Cenkci provided this statement about the recent meetings:
The Corps of Engineers held a working meeting with affected MKARNS stakeholders in Fort Smith, Ark., Aug. 20-21 to discuss the future of the MKARNS and joint efforts to make the MKARNS a resilient, reliable, sustainable waterborne transportation system. The locks are, in fact, approaching the end of their design life; it will require future investment by all parties to sustain and improve them.
We engage in risk-based decision making in all our projects, and any determination about risk of failure depends on a budget prioritization process.
We will continue to work with industry, government, and other stakeholders to develop ways to ensure that this vital waterborne commerce system is available for both current and future users. This effort underscores the Corps of Engineers commitment to working with stakeholders and local communities to ensure that we continue to provide value to the region and to the nation.
In addition to questions about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, residents from across Sequoyah County asked questions on the ACA (Obamacare), religious freedoms and a possible government shutdown:
• "Now I don't know great, a solution to replace it with, to come up with something else, but I shouldn't. I'm an elected official that came out of the construction world. If we want to get it right, let's bring in doctors, hospitals, nurses and patients. Let's have them bring (a plan together) and then let the American people vote on it. If the American people want to pay for it, they should have a voice on it. It shouldn't be crammed down the throat of people that are saying they don't want it."
• "If you look at the medical world, was it that bad? I'll tell you what messed it up was when the government started getting more involved in it and started setting the rates for the doctors on how much the could get reimbursed. Started forcing the hospitals to take patients regardless of if they could pay for it or not and couldn't ask any questions. Couldn't find out if they were legal or not. When they started getting involved in it and putting all these mandates on the healthcare industry, our coverage started going down."
• "For some reason, we get caught up in this whole thing of being silent and turning the other cheek. I've never been real good about turning the other cheek. I never understood why we had to turn the other cheek. If you're willing to make me feel uncomfortable because of the way that you choose to act or your own views, then I have no problem making you feel uncomfortable and saying, ‘No, you're wrong.’ Or giving you a choice to move someplace else. And we, as Christians, have kept our mouth shut. You know, I don't quite understand because someone else is speaking out, our traditional values we allow to be pushed constantly."
Threat of a government shutdown on Sept. 30
• "I don't think we're going to have a government shutdown. We have not been on conference about this. I think tomorrow evening, we've got a phone conference with a conference as a whole that we're supposed to get on. I don't know the topics. I don't know if this will be discussed. But just thinking through this in my head, and through some people I have talked to but not in leadership, what will probably happen – there is already a bill in place if we were to run up against a government shutdown, that the essential roles of government would be funded – military, law enforcement, social security checks would still go out, payment for military beneficiaries would still go out. But maybe some of the parks would be affected EPA – God forbid – would be shut down for a day. That'd be horrible. But the essential roles of government would be put in place."