Chris Murphy may look younger than his age of 41, but that doesn’t stop Connecticut’s junior U.S. senator from joking about his relatively youthful looks.
“I’m no longer the youngest Senate member,” he excitedly told a group of community leaders Monday at the Sutter-Terlizzi American Legion Post 16 in Shelton.
With the 2014 election cycle bringing an unusually large freshman Senate class to Washington, Murphy now is the third youngest member (Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas is 37, and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado is 40).
Murphy, a Democrat, used his discussion of age to introduce four area high school student leaders — including Charles O’Keefe, Shelton High’s Student Council president, and Elise Sullivan, Shelton High’s senior class president.
He presented the students with certificates and thanked them for their school leadership involvement at a time when they are busy with academics, extracurricular activities and “trying to figure out what to do next.”
Murphy hosted a “Pancakes and Politics” breakfast with invited community leaders at the American Legion post on Old Bridgeport Avenue.
About 40 people from government, business and community organizations in Shelton and Monroe attended to eat flapjacks and hear Murphy discuss his current legislative priorities and answer their questions.
He holds similar events around the state with the goal of getting feedback from constituents, particularly from those deeply involved in their communities.
“I want to know what I’m doing well and not well,” Murphy said.
He conceded that Congress isn’t very popular these days. “There’s been no excuse for the way Congress has done its job the last few years,” he said. “It’s been manufactured crisis after manufactured crisis.”
Murphy was asked about student loans, taxes, education funding, cancer research, foreign policy, and trade agreements.
He also discussed a new defense contract for Sikorsky Aircraft, policy shifts on Iran and Cuba, and the need to reform the No Child Left Behind Law that he and others claim leads to excessive testing in schools.
When audience member Arlene Liscinsky noted her daughter would be paying off student loans until 2035, Murphy — who has a law degree — said he and his wife are still paying off their student loans.
“It’s crippling young families of today,” he said, pointing out that the nation’s student loan debt now is larger than the credit card debt.
Murphy said banks are able to borrow funds at 1% in today’s low-interest rate environment and then loan the money at rates of 6% to 8%.
The U.S. government makes $50 billion a year from student loans, he said, arguing the rates should be lowered and the government could approach student loans as a “break-even” endeavor.
He also criticized colleges for excessive spending and tuition rates. “College costs too much, and we have to do something about that. … A lot of schools have gotten pretty fat and lazy,” he said.
Murphy said the traditional structure of college could be altered. He questioned why some degrees take four years to earn when students can gain the knowledge much more quickly.
When asked about his plan to raise the federal gas tax to fund transportation projects, Murphy said the federal levy has been unchanged since 1993. He wants to raise the tax from 18 cents per gallon to 30 cents per gallon over two years, in a bill he’s con-sponsored with a Republican.
He said Connecticut receives $1.60 for every $1 it pays in gas taxes. Murphy’s gas tax bill has received little support.
Dave Gallagher, commander of the Sutter-Terlizzi post, asked Murphy whether he would support a constitutional amendment intended to make it a crime to burn the American flag.
“The American flag is the first thing you grab after 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombing,” said Gallagher, a veteran who supports the amendment.
Murphy said he doesn’t believe the proposal will come up for a vote. He said he certainly values the flag and all it represents, and respects the American Legion’s strong views on the issue, but he appeared to indicate he’s unlikely to back such an amendment.
“I’m a very strong proponent of the First Amendment. … I tend to default to free speech,” Murphy said.
In his closing comments, the senator said he frequently works well with Republicans and doesn’t view his outlook as being “ideological.”
He said he doesn’t consider it a political weakness to change his mind on an issue. He said he often does just that based on new information or “what people tell me,” indicating he’s always open to listening to opposing viewpoints.