U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal touched on a range of issues in a luncheon address to members of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The county's new congressman explained his reasoning for tax reform, the need to raise the debt ceiling, and the benefits of earmarks during a wide-ranging address to the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.
"Extending the debt limit needs to stop being a politically charged game. That's no way to run the governement," said U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal to applause.
The debt limit is credit card bill coming due, he said. "I don't know how any member of Congress who voted for the war in Iraq (Neal voted against) can now not vote to raise the debt ceiling. For me seems basic arithmetic."
Instead, Congress should be addressing budget priorities rather than letting the broad across-the-board cuts forced by sequestration.
"I think it's time for some adult leadership," he said.
The talk came during a luncheon with Neal at the Crowne Plaza on Tuesday, following a forum on exporting opportunities hosted by the Springfield Democratic.
"Right from the first meetings we had we knew he got it, he knew the Berkshires," said Reggie Cooper, chairman of 1Berkshire, introdocig the Springfield Democrat.
Neal stressed his institutional memory — serving with both John W. Olver, whose 1st Massachusetts seat he won after 20 years in the 2nd District, and Olver's predecessor Silvio O. Conte.
He's a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, where he's advocated for three items important to constituents: ending the alternative minimum tax and contining the New Market Credits (which has made initiatives such as the Colonial Theatre possible) and the Build America Bonds (government subsidized bonds that have been used for airports around the country).
Neal said he filed legislation in 1998 to kill the AMT but it took the fiscal cliff to peg the tax to inflation. That means 28 million Americans — and 1 million in Massachusetts — will no longer pay the AMT.
Coming off the business forum, Neal continued to stress the need for job growth through economic development.
"We need to be north of 3 percent [economic growth] quarterly to address the jobs issue in America. Two percent won't do it; 1.8 percent won't do it," he said. "You need 150,000 jobs monthly almost just to replace the retirees."
Bringing the unemployment rate down to postwar rates of 4 to 5 percent would eliminate a third of the nation's debt, he said, through increases in tax revenue and decreases in social services.
"Growing the economy is the best thing you can do to lift people out of porverty," said Neal.
But, he said, "you can't say you like employees but you don't like employers — the two go hand in hand."
Neal said earmarks account for about 1 percent of the federal budget.
Congress needs to get serious about tax reform, he said, especially since the United States has one of the highest statutory corporate tax rates. Companies spend about $160 billion on tax compliance, and an estimated 240 hours complying with tax codes.
"This is not a productive use of resources by American companies," Neal said. "These dollars would much better spent creating more jobs and investing in R&D and purchasing necessary equipment."
But at the same time people are calling for simplifying the tax code, the most popular deductions include the homeowner, tax support for employer based health insurance and charitable giving.
Neal also advocated for a "big transportation bill," noting transportation funds have been used for a wide range of projects, including Pittsfield streetscape project. "I want to see North Street finished," he said.
He also advocated for earmarks, noting its local requests for local spending.
"The requests for earmarking comes from local government, hospitals, and educational institutions, that's overwhelmingly where it comes from," he said. "It is less than 1 percent of federal spending."
The congressman did lament polarization betweent the parties that's seen the loss of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans, and a citizenship that tends to tune into news and talks shows that confirms their previously held opinions.
"The American people make up their minds instantly," he said. "Instant news provides instant opinion."
An MCLA political science student asked what could be done to change that. Neal encouraged him to rid of opinion and stick with facts, to get involved in a campaign on the grassroots level and to think about nurturing the next group that comes along.
"Shouting down your opponent doesn't mean you win the argument," he said.