By Aila Boyd
With a little more than month in Congress behind him, Congressman Ben Cline, a Republican representing the 6th District, visited William Byrd High School last Thursday in order to give a speech to government students.
Cline, who previously served in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002 to 2018, won his seat in Congress last November, replacing outgoing Congressman Bob Goodlatte. Cline serves on the Judiciary and Education and Health Committees.
Andrew Thacker, a government teacher at the school, moderated the event. Cline’s visit to William Byrd marked his first time speaking to high school students as a congressman.
“I’m in a fish out of water position here because you guys are my first high school government class that I’ve spoken to as a member of Congress,” Cline said.
Cline regaled students with anecdotes about his first days on Capital Hill, noting that it was rather strange arriving in the midst of the longest government shutdown in the history of the country.
“It was like walking into a china shop five minutes after the bull ran through… It’s just destroyed,” Cline said. “Washington is so broken.”
Even though he’s only been in Washington a month, he said that he’s already starting to feel the “Washington bubble.”
“You get kind of closed off to what’s really happening,” Cline said.
He went on to explain that members of Congress have a responsibility to make things run smoothly.
“It’s pretty crazy coming into a system where they make such important decisions, but they can’t even get an agreement to make government run and function on a normal, daily basis,” Cline said. “My goal from day one was to get the government up and running again so that we can actually provide government services that have already been approved.”
Speaking of the role of Congress, Cline pulled out a copy of the Constitution from his pocket. He explained that the role outlined for the Congress in Article One is fairly limited: taxation and national defense.
Going forward, Cline said that in his mind, Congress should perform the duties set out for it in the Constitution, then it can start to have debates about different policies and initiatives.
Looking back on his time in the House of Delegates, Cline said that he thought the “part-time legislator” setup works better than Congress because aside from the roughly two months that they spend in Richmond each year, they’re “back in their communities living under the laws they practice.”
Stressing the importance of state and local officials, he told the students that they have a direct impact on their day-to-day lives because of the decisions they make.
“Local government is affecting life here at your school,” Cline said.
He explained that officials in Washington tend to deal more on the macro level, whereas state and local officials make decisions on a micro level.
After his speech, Cline answered a round of questions that were prepared by the students that ran the gamut of issues that are impacting their day-to-day lives.
Speaking of the composition of the 6th Congressional District, a district which he said has a good reputation, Cline said that it’s unique in the fact that it’s home to 20 colleges and universities.
For kindergarten through 12th grade, Cline said that as part of his role on the Education and Health Committee, he would like to give more control to localities.
“Bureaucrats in Washington have no idea what goes on in your schools,” he said. “Quite frankly, the decisions that affect you shouldn’t be made in Washington – they should be made here.”
Cline went on to discuss college affordability, an issue that the students were keen to hear about.
Cline said that giving students the ability to refinance their student loans should be a top priority, noting that it’s something that Democrats and Republicans both agree on. Cline explained that it’s an issue that even he faces. He said that he’s still working to pay off his student loans from law school.
Acknowledging the argument that some people subscribe to that college should be free, Cline said that in the end, “nothing is free when a government is promising it to you.”
He equated free college to promising someone something for free, but secretly hiding the bill and charging for it later on.
“Anytime government tells you you shouldn’t have to worry about something, worry twice as much because government has over the years become real good at spending your money,” Cline said.
One of the questions posed to Cline inquired about what he plans to do to bolster job opportunities for both college-bound and non-college-bound students.
“Jobs are critical,” Cline said.
He explained that elected officials in Washington have less of a role to play when it comes to what type of jobs are developed in the region than legislators in Richmond.
Cline said that there needs to be a greater integration of higher education and businesses. One of the ways he suggested that more businesses could be attracted to the area would be through the use of tax breaks.
Another idea he threw out is to allow high schools throughout the state a higher degree of autonomy in order to allow students more opportunities outside of the classroom.
The final question posed to Cline addressed the Center for Disease Control’s decision to pressure manufacturers of JUUL, a type of electronic cigarette pods, to discontinue the production of flavors that are favored by minors.
Cline acknowledged that JUUL usage is becoming rapidly more popular in schools across the country. He explained to the students that although JUUL products don’t include harmful chemicals such as tar, the nicotine in them “rewires your brain.”
He said that it’s a “bad product for young, healthy bodies.”
“Does just flavoring a product grape, cherry or bubble gum mean that you’re marketing it to children necessarily?” Cline asked rhetorically. “No, if you talk to grownups, they probably like that, too.”
He said that although he has never tried smoking a flavored JUUL before, he said he imagines that they taste much better than ones that are completely flavorless.
Despite his stance that JUULs are harmful, Cline demonstrated his Libertarianism bona fides by advocating the stance that in the end, it’s a matter of personal liberty.
Pointing to a law that’s currently being considered in Richmond, Cline said that he disagrees with the idea of changing the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, the same age required for the purchase of alcohol. He cited the fact that since individuals who are 18 are legally able to vote and join the military as the reason behind his stance, noting that it simply wouldn’t be fair to tell someone who had returned from service in the military that they aren’t allowed to smoke a cigarette.
“I have issue with personal freedoms that are taken away from law abiding adults,” Cline said. “I think the Constitution was designed to protect your freedoms. One of those freedom is to do stupid things – smoking is stupid.”
With that being said, he added that companies should abide by federal guidelines prohibiting the marketing of tobacco products to minors.
Cline ended his speech by saying, “I’m proud of the education that you’re getting. Your parents are doing a great job and I have every confidence that you’re going to be a great generation.”
Cline is a resident of Rockbridge County. He graduated from Lexington High School in 1990 and was awarded a Juris Doctorate by the University of Richmond.