It didn't take long for Democratic Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin and her main challenger, Republican Kristi Noem, to voice criticisms of one another during Tuesday night's live televised debate from the South Dakota Public Broadcasting studio in Vermillion.
The program featured the two candidates, who are running neck-and-neck one week before the Nov. 2 general election, and a third independent candidate, B. Thomas Marking.
The candidates were asked how to best address the growing national debt.
"Too many people in both political parties in Washington have been reckless in spending. Under the Republicans, and the Democrats, this debt has been accumulating for over nine years," Herseth Sandlin said. "Some of us have been consistent to bring discipline back to the federal budgeting process, to put pay as you go rules back on the books requiring the federal government to pay for its priorities. We do need to cut spending. My record demonstrates that I'm willing to make the hard decisions."
"Paygo is a joke," Noem said. "Paygo is something that DC politicians like to talk about to try to say that they were fiscally responsible. The fact is we wouldn't have gone $3 trillion further into debt if paygo really was working."
"I didn't hear very many specifics from Kristi Noem," Herseth Sandlin said in rebuttal. "Paygo isn't a joke; paygo was on the books in the 1990s when under President Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress that abided by paygo, we reached a projected budget surplus. Even Sen. Thune has included paygo in his budget plan to restore fiscal discipline."
Noem said the first place she would start working to cut spending, if elected, would be to repeal the health care bill passed by Congress earlier this year.
"We know that the cost for full implementation of this health care bill is going to be more than $2.5 trillion," she said. "When we have a $13 trillion debt that we're carrying right now, and we're passing that on to our children, we know that we can't afford this health care bill."
Noem also called for the federal government to return to 2008 spending levels, and have "adult conversations about all of the other departments and where we spend our money."
Herseth Sandlin said she supports a bipartisan commission that will map out how to reform entitlement programs, tax reform and discretionary spending. She also quickly listed several federal programs and other actions that could she believes would have a positive fiscal impact.
"The 2011 budget calls for 33 cents out of every dollar that the United States will spend will end up being borrowed," Marking said.
He said there's been talk of a balanced budget amendment, but Marking said a broader approach is needed.
"I'm thinking of a fiscal responsibility amendment, that would put additional restrictions on Congress," he said. "This has to be the first step, because until it's in the Constitution … we're not going to get a handle on Congress."
Marking said his idea would end earmarks, unfunded mandates and create a rule that wouldn't allow Congress to put burdens on others that it wouldn't put on itself.
"There's a list of things that we need to do to restrict Congress from behaving irresponsibly with our fiscal resources," he said.
Noem said Congress needs to take steps to further protect Social Security.
"When you look at Social Security and Medicare – I can point to the perfect example in the health care bill," she said. "What we're doing to Medicare is essentially what we've been doing to Social Security for years."
The health care bill, she said, will make cuts to the Medicare program and divert funds to other programs to help pay for that legislation. "We need to make sure that we go in there and protect those (Social Security) dollars so it is a viable program for the future."
She added that Herseth Sandlin has distorted her (Noem's) record by saying she supports privatizing Social Security.
"The first step (to preserve Social Security) is the same step that President Reagan took in the early 1980s, that President Obama has now taken – establishing a bipartisan commission to look at Social Security among other programs – a commission that Kristi Noem has opposed … we need to have some options on the table to ensure that Social Security is protected."
Herseth Sandlin added that she hasn't distorted anyone's record during the course of the campaign. "My record has been mischaracterized time and time again, but Kristi Noem, in the spring of this year, said she said it was a good place to start … to support the Paul Ryan budget. Now, seniors across South Dakota know what this would mean. It would mean privatization of Social Security. It would mean privatization of Medicare."
Marking said Social Security and similar programs set up as a public trust need "to have a wall around them," adding that it was a huge mistake to allow funds from the Social Security program to be parked in the nation's general fund.
"We need to get back to where all of those funds that are set aside for public trust," Marking said, "are put in a place where nobody can get to them. The temptation is too great if we don't."