It’s not often the little town of Center City plays host to a United States congressman, but that was the case Monday.
Democratic 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan stopped by Hazelden—only the second Congress member in 60 years to visit the well-known addiction treatment center—to give a speech before visiting his new office at the Chisago County Government Center.
Nolan touched on a myriad of topics, including one fit for the location of his speech: mental health.
“Until we get to the stage where mental health care is fundamental and available to everyone, we’re going to be denying and cheating ourselves in this country,” he said.
Nolan noted the debate on mental health has been sparked at the nation’s Capitol in light of recent tragedies like the shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn.
He said Congress is having a “tough time” trying to figure out how to address gun control, but most members of Congress agree paying more attention to mental health issues would be a positive step in the right direction when it comes to protecting and strengthening the nation.
“The good news is we’re seeing more humanity and agreement on the fact that we need better mental health services,” he said.
Changes in Congress
Before winning the 8th District seat in the last recent election, Nolan’s previous term in Congress was 32 years ago. He said there have been “profound” chances since then, most of which he doesn’t like.
He explained that for a long time, congressmen and congresswomen were able to debate legislation under what was called the “open rule.” This allowed for members to address and debate large amounts of legislation and make amendments to that legislation. Nolan called the process “bipartisan.”
Now, Nolan said, Congress operates under the “closed rule,” meaning it only addresses legislation brought forth by the leaders of the House and Senate.
“It’s become profoundly undemocratic,” he said.
Nolan also criticized the amount of time Congress is actually working and how much time is spent on fundraising for campaigns.
“I had my staff do some research, and the last time I served, we worked 48 out of 52 weeks,” he said. “The last Congress worked 32 out of 52 weeks.”
He also noted “money usually wins elections” and both Democrat and Republican Congress members are encouraged by their parties to spend about 30 hours a week at call centers near the Capitol soliciting potential donors to give to their campaigns.
On top of that, he said, Congress members are encouraged to do another 10 hours of week of fundraising.
“Well, there’s a 40-hour week for you right there,” he said, adding he hasn’t spent “one minute” in the Democrat call center, a fact he has been both applauded and chastised for.
After he finished with his speech, Nolan fielded a few questions from those in attendance.
One Hazelden employee asked about third-party insurance providers, saying they determine how long stays at treatment centers should be, and patients are often discharged before they’ve fully completed treatment.
“Is there any chance political pressure could be put on the insurance companies to examine the cost of the people who are discharged prematurely?” he asked.
Nolan responded, “If there isn’t, there should be.”
He noted in order to make the change, elected officials would likely have to step in, because insurance companies are for-profit entities, and they’re not going to change the way they process claims unless there are laws telling them to do so.
“If it is going to happen, it’s going to have to be a result as government insistence,” he said.
Next, Nolan was asked about his opinion of sequestration.
“Sequestration is not a good way, in my judgment, to go about taking care of federal spending,” he said.
He explained there are numerous areas where the federal government can cut spending, such as shutting down some military bases across the world that have “golf courses” for generals and an overabundance of staff being housed there.
As a result of sequestration, Nolan said money is being cut from needed military branches like the National Guard. He said wages have been reduced for employees at Camp Ripley in Brainerd, and a National Guard Air Defense station in Duluth was shut down.
He added the federal government is still spending too much money in other countries.
“Last year, they spent $60 billion on infrastructure projects in Iraq,” he said, referencing information he gleaned from a United States Inspector General’s report. “And guess what, not one of them got completed. You might want to consider saving some money there.”
He also addressed a question about how Congress is dealing with a potentially aggressive North Korea.
“Ironically enough, I don’t find a whole lot of concern compared to what is being expressed in the media,” he said.
In terms of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, he said, like other countries that have them, they simply act as a deterrent for those who might invade.
“I’ve got to believe North Korea knows that if they attack the U.S. government, it would be their last living act,” he said.