Transportation, inflation and the workforce were among topics covered Monday at the Top of Virginia Regional Chamber's federal legislative forum at Winchester Country Club.
Attendees heard perspectives from both sides of the aisle, as the luncheon was attended by 6th District Rep. Ben Cline (R-Botetourt), the new congressional representative for the Winchester area after recent redistricting, and a representative from the office of U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
As several noted, the Frederick County-Winchester area remains part of Virginia's fastest-growing region.
"I've enjoyed getting to know folks here over the last year since redistricting added Winchester, Frederick, Clarke counties, unifying the Shenandoah Valley and uniting our efforts to make this corridor the economic powerhouse we all know it could be," Cline said.
The event was moderated by Christopher West of Jackson-West Consulting LLC.
Cline and Rachel Reibach, the regional director for Kaine's Northwestern Virginia Office, were asked about the nation's high inflation rate, which topped 9% in June. It's now 7.7%.
Cline believes energy policy could ease inflation. He favors slowing clean-energy initiatives such as electric vehicles, solar panels, and wind farms while supporting fossil fuel production in order to lower prices for everyday Americans.
"What we need to look at are solutions. Higher prices in the grocery store, higher prices at the pump. One of the fastest ways to get there is through our energy policy," Cline said. "To impact energy costs globally will require a major shift in policy at the federal level regarding production and domestic production and how we give the energy industry the reassurance it needs to invest in production."
Cline continued: "When we have some saying we need to end fossil fuel investment altogether, that is a disincentive to production. And we need to bring cost down."
But he seeks input from constituents for maximum effectiveness when shaping legislation to combat soaring inflation.
Kaine voted for the Inflation Reduction Act, a priority of the President Joe Biden's administration intended to curb inflation, lower prescription drug prices, and promote clean energy. “We’re proud that this law will lower the price of prescription drugs, reduce the deficit, bring down energy bills and fight climate change," said a statement on Kaine's website that was posted after the act was passed in August.
Cline, who voted against the Inflation Reduction Act, said he's "concerned that the amount of government spending may have artificially kept some industries afloat. Government intervention generally hinders that market correction that is necessary to keep our economy ahead."
Asked about congested and crash prone Interstate 81, Cline said he favors widening it from two lanes to three, "frankly, from Winchester to Bristol."
Cline hopes to provide more transportation dollars to the area as state funding is more frequently allocated to the more populous Hampton Roads or northern Virginia regions.
Cline also voted against the Democrat-led infrastructure bill, the Invest in America Act, because its definition of "core transportation infrastructure" was broader than his own. He said the bill focused on mass transit and the construction of electric vehicle charging stations rather than roads and bridges. The bill was signed into law in November 2021.
On the labor shortage, and whether immigration could help resolve some gaps in the workforce that have hampered small businesses, Reibach said, "Immigration is a huge part of the puzzle to solve this. Everyone I've met with from agricultural sector to assistant living staff, everyone needs solutions. We can't let this linger."
Cline agreed, saying he believes the pathway to citizenship needs to be made less cumbersome.
Since Cline's reelection to his third term on Nov. 8, Republicans have taken control of the House of Representatives, while Democrats narrowly remain the Senate majority.
Critical of the Biden administration, Cline told the room, "Now that Republicans are moving into the majority, I hope I can be an advocate for this area. I think we need to put more pressure on the executive branch that is applying more regulations that hurt small businesses."
Cline alluded to the brisk pace at which Congress has worked of late. "Every time I'm here, I look out on that golf course and wonder when I am going to be able to play it," Cline said. "And given what's happened in Washington over the last few weeks, I don't think I'll be playing it anytime soon."
He lamented the lack of bipartisanship in Washington in his introductory remarks and recalled the bipartisan lunches from his time as a member of the Virginia General Assembly.
"I'm trying to take a lot of the lessons I learned in Virginia to Washington. I go to Washington after many years in Richmond, and they are giving me a tour. Well, here are your two lounges: there's Republican lounge and there's the Democrat lounge," Cline said.
"That has proven to be the biggest challenge over the last four years," Cline said. "We are a divided country, but we can disagree without being disagreeable."