William Byrd High School seniors questioned rookie Congressman Ben Cline on Thursday about college affordability, jobs for constituents with or without a college diploma and whether Juul pods should be banned.
Cline was sworn into the House of Representatives on Jan. 3. His appearance at the Roanoke County school just outside Vinton marked the first time Cline has traveled to a high school to speak with students since taking office, he said.
Government teacher Andrew Thacker facilitated the event, held in the auditorium, and said students provided him with questions for Cline ahead of time.
Cline, a Republican from Rockbridge County, spent 16 years in the state legislature before succeeding retired Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Joining Congress amid a partial federal government shutdown, Cline said he felt like he was “walking into a China shop five minutes after the bull ran through.” Washington is broken and in need of repair, he added.
Elected officials are responsible for ensuring the government is functioning, Cline told the students. He said he’s seeing the so-called Washington “bubble” in action, and his goal from day one was to help “get the government up and running again.”
Cline, a lawyer, was appointed to serve on two subcommittees of the House Education and Labor Committee and three of the House Judiciary Committee.
He said the federal government has not always excelled in overseeing regulations in the kindergarten through 12th-grade levels. He argued the federal government should give back more control to states and localities.
In higher education, Cline said the 6th Congressional District, with about 20 colleges and universities, has a strong reputation. He wants to ensure more students don’t miss out on opportunities because of cost, he said. The first question posed by the William Byrd seniors focused on what Cline might do to help constituents pay for their education.
Cline’s proposal is to give college students and graduates the chance to refinance their federal student loans when interest rates are lower. He likened the idea to how homeowners might opt to refinance a mortgage.
Cline said he understands the burden of carrying student loans. He’s still paying off debt from law school because his interest rate is locked, he said. When the economy improved and interest rates dropped, he was still dealing with a “jacked up interest rate” and couldn’t seek more competitive offers, Cline said.
He argued that no matter what policy is implemented to make college more affordable, nothing is ever truly free. Cline then segued to a discussion about the federal debt, and how that burden will snowball for generations if officials don’t rein in spending.
Students also asked what ideas Cline has to increase employment opportunities for college bound and non-college bound students.
While the economy is humming, and unemployment rates have dropped, Cline said, there is still a need for workers in the area, especially in trades. He referred to programs at the high school level that provide students with the early training they need to gain a head start on a career in skilled work, and said those should continue expanding. He said he’ll also continue to support policies that help businesses grow and hire more employees.
Another student’s question relayed by Thacker centered on small e-cigarette vaping devices that have stirred controversy in schools across the U.S: Juul pods. The company in November announced it would stop selling most of its flavor products in response to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s announcement it would investigate the marketing practices, and sales, of major e-cigarette makers.
“Teachers and administrators spending precious instruction time dealing with these devices in schools. Would you be in favor of a ban or an investigation into their marketing, or use by students?”
Cline said no matter what form it’s delivered, nicotine is a bad product. He said he wants e-cigarette companies to adhere to the federal mandate that they not market toward children, and he’s in favor of an investigation into possible marketing violations.
Cline answered some students’ questions individually following the 30-minute program.