Members of the New Jersey National Guard had the chance to hear from both sides of the political aisle Tuesday evening during an unusual bipartisan town hall featuring Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur and Democrats Bonnie Watson Coleman and Frank Pallone.
The roughly 90-minute meeting at the Lawrenceville National Guard Armory was exclusively for members of the National Guard and their families, and did not feature the contentious and sometimes combative confrontations that have punctuated several congressional town halls around the nation since President Donald Trump's inauguration.
Instead, the three lawmakers fielded questions from a National Guard moderator and a few dozen Guard members and veterans on issues ranging from Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits and military health care coverage, to the federal debt ceiling, infrastructure spending and reciprocity for other states' concealed carry gun permits.
MacArthur, who fielded questions from a rowdy town hall crowd in Willingboro for nearly five hours in May, said he was pleased to appear with his two Democratic colleagues both for a "substantive discussion" concerning important issues but also to send a message that Democrats and Republicans can work together to solve them.
"I believe we're facing issues so big if we don't solve them together, we won't solve them at all," MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River, said at the town hall's start. "This tonight is a really incredibly important, not only substantive discussion, but a symbol, a sign to the country that we can do better. America is better than this political divide. We can do better by working together."
Pallone, D-6th of Long Branch, and Coleman, D-12th of Ewing, also said they were delighted to have the chance to participate in the bipartisan event.
"We actually do a lot of things bipartisan in Congress. I would say 80 to 90 percent of what we do is actually bipartisan. People don't hear that, but it's true," Pallone said.
One issue where there was a clear consensus among the lawmakers was infrastructure spending on projects such as road and bridge repairs, rail improvements and broadband expansion.
"I've not met a person in Congress who doesn't think infrastructure investment wouldn't be great for our country," MacArthur said. "The question is how to pay for it. And how we work it through Congress."
The second-term congressman said one holdup has been Republican leaders' preference to include infrastructure spending in a tax reform bill. MacArthur said he disagrees with that approach and has urged House Speaker Paul Ryan to separate the issues, arguing the tax changes are unlikely to receive bipartisan support that the infrastructure bill would.
"Particularly now when you see such virulent partisanship in our country, this would be a really good time to have some bipartisan success," he said.
Coleman said she was encouraged by MacArthur's willingness to advocate for that approach.
"From Tom's lips to (Speaker) Ryan's ears, to pen and paper. I think people will see there's a willingness to engage in a bipartisan infrastructure bill," Coleman said. "We know the value of it, we know the need of it."
Pallone said the White House needs to offer some leadership on the issue.
"The problem right now is we're not hearing much from the president about what he wants to do," he said.
While there was a general consensus among the three congressional representatives on infrastructure and issues related to Guard benefits and protections, the three were far apart on the issue of reciprocity for other states' carry permits.
MacArthur co-sponsored a bill that would force states to recognize other state's permits. He said members of the Guard and Reserves especially should be permitted to travel between states with firearms.
"I would especially think people already carrying in the service of our nation should be trusted to carry and not have to worry when they cross state lines," he said, adding that he also supports funding for instant background checks.
"As we allow people to exercise their Second Amendment rights, we also need to make sure people who are a danger to themselves and others don't get guns. And I think the way to do that is with adequate background checks," he said.
Both Democrats said they couldn't support reciprocity.
"My concern is that (in) some states it's very easy to obtain a license to have a concealed weapon, and in New Jersey our laws are much stricter," Pallone said. "I'm not on (MacArthur's) side on this."
"I think the community has access to too many guns. I just in good conscious would not support the usurping of state law by a federal law that says if you can carry a gun in Florida … then you should be able to carry it in New Jersey. That's not something I can support."
Pallone and MacArthur also disagreed on the issue of the national debt.
Pallone said the nation's debt load was less worrisome given that the economy is growing. Instead, he said the bigger concern was economic disparity.
"The rich are getting richer. … The middle class is suffering," he said. "I would downplay the importance of the debt right now. I don't think that the debt is out of proportion to the economy and the gross national product."
MacArthur said he sees the debt issue differently and that it is already a drag on the nation's economy due to the interest the government must pay and that the current direction will also devalue the nation's currency and financial standing with other nations.
"Our debt has tripled in the last 10 years, and I think we're headed to a tipping point," he said. "We have to deal with our debt, and that means we have to make choices."