Tradition has meatballs, pasta and salad on the table when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse holds one of his community dinner meetings and that was the case Sunday at Whitehouse’s 114th dinner-get-together; his first since re-election last fall.
But there was more on the menu, and it wasn’t just the dessert cookies. It could have been hot peppers, because some of the more than 120 in the Pilgrim High School cafeteria were steaming; whether the topic was the national debt, Obama Care, gun control or the sequester.
Speaking of the fiscal cliff, John Kennedy of Warwick said, “These are all made-up situations. You guys don’t play well in the sandbox and we’re tired of it. When are you guys going to get going?”
Kennedy was just getting started.
“We’re tired of the BS. We are done with Congress, we’re sick and tired of it. We’ve been hit and hammered and we’re done. I’m done.”
When the applause died, Whitehouse agreed cuts could be made but that Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security should be protected.
“All I can say is, give it a chance,” said Whitehouse.
Senator Jack Reed, who also turned up, said there have been some bi-partisan efforts, adding, however, “We have to search for ways to move forward.”
That wasn’t enough to satisfy another member of the audience.
“None of us stand a chance,” the diner said. “Only in Washington can you do a bad job and get a raise.”
But then Whitehouse suggested there was another place.
“On Wall Street, a lot of people stayed and they should have been fired,” he said.
In his opening remarks, Whitehouse said his work in Congress could be “extremely frustrating,” adding, “I never forget that America stands for something in the world.”
He apologized for the way things are going right now. He called the sequester “unfortunate” and said he hopes matters will be worked out by the end of spring.
Of the $4 trillion needed in cuts or added revenues over the next 10 years, Whitehouse said $2.4 trillion has already been done, leaving $1.6 trillion to go. Of that, he believes, half should come in government cuts with the balance being new revenue from closing loopholes in the tax code and eliminating some deductions, which, he claimed, is costing $11 trillion.
As an example of a loophole, Whitehouse cited Facebook, which he said made $11 billion in profits yet was actually given federal funds.
“We don’t have to raise any rates, we just look at the loopholes,” he said.
One new tax Whitehouse said he favors is a financial transaction rate that he put at 3 cents per $100.
“It would be invisible to the people,” he said.
Closing tax loopholes sounded good to some in the audience, but one man said he had heard that before. He asked when Whitehouse would do it.
“I’m for it right now,” Whitehouse answered.
Another attendee wanted to know why federal employees aren’t in Obama Care.
“Wouldn’t we be better off if we all had the same benefits as the politicians?” he asked.
Rob Cote, who led the Warwick Car Tax Revolt, called the math being used by government officials “pure fiction.” He questioned how consumer spending can be up and inflation down when gasoline and other costs keep going up.
“It’s designed to tell the economy is good and the economy is not good,” he said.
“Why can’t there be a tax stimulus for us,” said one woman. “I’m old enough to retire, but I can’t. We feel like we’ve lost what we’ve been working for for years.”
Discussion also focused on guns and the tragedy of Newtown.
Gail Hogan of Cranston, secretary of the Rhode Island State Rifle and Revolver Association, spoke of proposed state legislation that would require the registration of all gun owners, along with the payment of a $100 fee. She wanted to know where Whitehouse stood on gun control.
Whitehouse said he favored a ban on “super capacity magazines,” which provoked an outburst from Cote and others.
“I get that, you disagree with me,” Whitehouse said pressing on to his next point.
“I want to make sure there are not so many loopholes in background checks,” he said.
Reed joined in, saying that some semi-automatic guns were clearly designed as military weapons.
He added, “It’s not just about the weapon; it’s about the person. We can improve background checks.”
Warwick School Committee member Gene Nadeau asked both senators how they could saddle future generations with such debt.
Whitehouse said the administration was handed the debt of two wars, bad policies and a recession.
“I suppose President Obama had nothing to do with it,” one man piped up.
“Very little,” Whitehouse responded to laughs.
Keeping his word, Whitehouse cut off publicly addressed questions after 8 p.m. but said he would stay as long as it took to talk with anyone who wanted.
At 8:30 there was still a circle of people around him.