Wednesday began early for U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins, and it was a fairly typical day for a congresswoman back home from Washington, meeting constituents throughout the district during the August recess.
It started at 7:15 a.m. with a breakfast at a country club with the Ottawa Area Chamber of Commerce.
After a hearty buffet-style meal of biscuits and gravy, hash browns and fruit salad, the Republican congresswoman from Topeka stood before 60 or so local business leaders who gathered at the Ottawa Country Club to give one of her standard stump speeches about issues pending in Washington.
After nearly five years in Washington and many more as state treasurer and a state senator, Jenkins has learned to tailor her speech to each audience.
This one was given to a friendly crowd of local business leaders, in a county she carried with 70 percent of the vote in 2012. It focused in broad, general terms on the sources of the federal debt and deficit problems, and on the GOP budget plan that passed the House in March, but quickly died in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
And while Jenkins did not mention it, that is the source of a stalemate that, if not resolved when Congress returns next month, could lead to a shutdown of the federal government in October.
“If we maintain the status quo," Jenkins said, pointing to a line graph with a red-shaded area rising almost to infinity, "this is where our debt is headed, and what is causing a lot of Americans to lose sleep at night.”
This was not a campaign speech. There was barely any mention of “Republicans” or “Democrats,” nor any critical references to President Barack Obama that would normally pepper her stump speeches in an election year. Nor was there any mention of the Tea Party Caucus, of which Jenkins is a charter member.
Speaking to the base
Still, beneath the surface, there was an air of partisanship in her speech, even as she used inclusive words like “we” and “our” to talk about the budget priorities of the GOP majority in the House, and of the Tea Party Caucus, of which she is a founding member.
Jenkins quickly went through some of the highlights of the GOP budget that passed the House in March, but which died in the Senate — a combination of tax and spending reforms that Jenkins said would lead to a balanced federal budget in 10 years.
“How we get there is we just stop spending money on things the federal government shouldn't be spending money on,” Jenkins said. “Return to the states what they should have had jurisdiction over, return to the cities and counties what they should have had jurisdiction over.”
Specifically, she mentioned Medicaid, the joint federal and state health insurance program for the poor — “the poster child for a federal program that is run amok,” Jenkins said — which the House budget would turn into a block grant program to be managed entirely by states.
“The federal government really had no business ever taking that on,” she said. “So we would give the money that's currently coming to Kansans and we would send that to the state lawmakers and ask them to run the program,” Jenkins said.
One man in the audience suggested Congress should do even more to rein in Medicaid.
"I know of someone who would not — she has so many children, it would not pay her to go back to work," he said. "She makes too much money on welfare."
Switching gears in Lawrence
A few hours later, though, Jenkins was in Lawrence, the heart of Douglas County, which she lost in 2012, carrying less than 40 percent of the vote. Here, there was less talk about cutting back or eliminating government programs and more talk about ways government can do more or work better.
The first stop was the Bioscience and Technology Business Center on the Kansas University campus and one of the companies that now occupies space in the center, Argenta, a New Zealand-based firm specializing in animal health research.
The BTBC itself is a business incubation center that was launched by the Kansas Bioscience Authority, a quasi-public agency that receives both public and private money to foster bioscience businesses in Kansas.
Companies like Argenta that are housed there also gain access to a wide variety of state and federal assistance.
"I think it's a good reminder that we have to compete internationally on all fronts," Jenkins said of the public involvement in incubators like the BTBC. "In my role as a United States representative, I just think we need to help them be competitive on our soil."
From there, Jenkins went to a subsidized public housing project in Lawrence run by Tenants to Homeowners Inc., an agency that benefits from federal housing tax credits to build and manage affordable housing for low-income and disabled individuals.
"Americans are getting a huge return on their investment for putting a little bit of skin in the game to incentivize a public-private partnership like low-income housing," Jenkins said. "Otherwise you'd never get investors attracted to this sector."
Jenkins acknowledged that there are wide differences of opinion about the proper role of the federal government — and federal spending — in the U.S. economy.
"I think for me it's finding the appropriate level of government to serve the people, and what people want is return on their investment."