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Area leaders tackle U.S. gridlock

But two of three congressmen say they won’t compromise on taxes

By April Bethea and Tim Funk
abethea@charlotteobserver.com

The Friday night forum was about gridlock in Washington, but two members of Congress – Democrat Mel Watt and Republican Patrick McHenry – told an overflow crowd in uptown Charlotte that they expect a deal to avoid the “fiscal cliff” to happen just before Christmas.

Still, Watt of Charlotte was the only one of three House members at UNC Charlotte’s Center City campus to say he would compromise to prevent the tax hikes and spending cuts that will happen Jan. 1 if no action is taken before then.

McHenry of Cherryville and fellow GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney of Indian Land, S.C., declined opportunities to say they’d be willing to vote for higher tax rates for the wealthy – a proposal President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats are pushing as part of any compromise package.

“The rates are not what drives government revenue; it’s economic growth,” said Mulvaney, who called for cutting loopholes and reforming the tax code instead.

Watt said he would consider cutting spending for entitlement programs such as Medicare – a proposal Republican in the House and Senate insist be part of any agreement.

“We need shared sacrifice. … I’m ready to deal with entitlements and revenues,” Watt said to applause.

The three House members made up one of two panels at the two-hour event, which drew more than 400 people and was the first of four issues forums planned by The Charlotte Observer and PNC Bank – the co-sponsors.

WCNC-TV news anchor Sonja Gantt moderated.

The biggest applause of the night came during an earlier panel, when former N.C. Gov. Jim Martin advised current members of Congress to eschew other pledges – including the one from Grover Norquist against raising taxes – and sign one hatched by Martin’s wife, Dottie.

“Dottie and I were talking about this three nights ago,” Martin said. “And Dottie said, ‘You know, what we need is a pledge to do what’s best for America rather than me politically.’ ”

The first panel, which also included former U.S. Rep. John Spratt of York, S.C., generally agreed that Washington has become more partisan and stalemated in recent years.

One reason, Spratt said, is that “there’s too much money in American politics. The money that comes in fuels these contests and it all becomes so negative.”

Martin recalled that when he served in Congress, Democrats and Republicans got along pretty well. That’s changed now, and he said he’d encourage current leaders to listen to each other. “Realize that those in the other party come from districts that are different from yours and they have their beliefs that are different from yours,” he said. “And they are genuine and legitimate just like yours are.”

Kimrey Rhinehardt, a UNC vice president and former top aide to U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C, and UNC Charlotte associate political science professor Eric Heberlig were also on the first panel.

The second panel – of current members of Congress – was more defensive, saying many of the biggest fights in Washington are over legitimate ideological disagreements.

“The solutions are very directional. Do you want a larger government or a smaller government?” McHenry said. “What’s the compromise there?”

And those disagreements in the halls of Congress mirror greater polarization in the general population, they said. “Congress is more partisan, but the electorate is also more partisan,” Watt said.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress compromise every day, they said, but the agreements are on smaller issues that the news media has no interest in highlighting.

“What sells is when we fight,” said Mulvaney, who pointed out that he and liberal Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., couldn’t get any time on either Fox News or MSNBC to talk about their bipartisan bill to freeze defense spending for a year.

But those and other arguments did not necessarily sway an audience that – by a show of hands – arrived and left with little confidence that Congress can work together for the common good or that it can avoid the fiscal cliff.

And while the members of Congress who showed up got some laughs and applause, they also got mixed reviews at best.

“I think some of them danced the questions a bit – typical politicians,” said Kathryn Long, a retired counselor from Charlotte. “I learned a lot and they seem to want to work together. But I heard some real straight party talk, too.”

Tien Vu, an IT professional from Charlotte, said he wasn’t sure members of Congress – including the ones on the panel – understand “how so important it is to solve the problems instead of playing blame games. They seem to like to play games with the political process.”

Also Friday:

• The audience applauded a question that suggested term limits might be an answer. But Watt called it “the most asinine idea. … Tell me any other profession where you build up expertise and knowledge and you’ve gotten good at it, and they say, ‘Now go home.’ ”

• Spratt and other panelists said members of Congress pay the most attention to letters that seem to come from real people with real concerns, not those reading “talking points” written for them. Spratt said the letters with “butter stains from the kitchen table … are the ones that really count.”

• There was disagreement over whether partisan “shout shows” on Fox and MSNBC hurt the political process or were merely entertainment. McHenry likened those cable networks’ business models to boxing magnate Don King’s. “This is like modern gladiatorial battle,” he said, “but that doesn’t affect how I legislate or have any bearing on the votes I cast.”

But Watt said he won’t appear on those shows – or on Charlotte’s WBT radio, which carries conservative talkers. “I don’t want to raise their ratings.”

• Mulvaney defended the pledge he and most other Republicans signed to never raise taxes. The pledge, promoted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, has been criticized for making GOP members of Congress inflexible when it comes to compromise. But Mulvaney said the pledge “is consistent with what I believe.”

Small group protests

Friday’s forum drew about 20 demonstrators, many of the members of Action NC, the group sponsoring a campaign to end fix the national debt by ending the Bush-era tax cuts and raising taxes on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.

“There is just no other way that anyone has proposed to raise the revenue necessary to make any sort of deal in the end, any sort of fair deal to the 98 percent of Americans who do not want to have this balanced on their backs – and don’t deserve it either,” said Pat McCoy, 58, of Charlotte and the director of Action NC. Staff writer Cameron Steele contributed

Bethea: 704-358-6013. Funk: 704-358-5703
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