U.S. Rep. Richard Neal was in the Berkshires on Wednesday as the guest speaker at a lunch hosted by the Great Barrington and Tri-Town Rotaries. The congressman also taught a civics course at Monument Mountain Regional High School.
GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — U.S. Rep. Richard Neal is currently focusing on income disparity by co-sponsoring bills to extend unemployment benefits and raise the minimum wage.
"Whether you are left, right or center, there has been greater income disparity. We can argue about why and there are a host of reasons. It is more complicated than it seems on face value," Neal said after a luncheon with local Rotary Clubs at Crissey Farms. "But not to miss the point, it is a very real issue for the American people."
Neal said he co-sponsored bills to extend unemployment benefits — but that was halted in the Senate — and gradually raise the minimum wage. He says with the sequestration deal last year, there is a chance to negotiate for passage of those two bills.
The rise in minimum wage is needed, he said, because American workers have not have a pay increase in years. He added that raising the minimum wage will lead to higher-paying individuals getting raises as well. He said that could be tied with other tax issues he'd like to tackle.
"The evidence is anything but clear that raising the minimum wage, which hasn't been raised in a long time, is a job killer. It's not," Neal said in answering concerns about the increased cost to businesses. "There is no evidence that there will be job reductions because those individuals work in sectors where the jobs are necessary."
Without the raise, the purchasing power of the American people has greatly decreased, he said. He also is looking for a stronger emphasis on community and state colleges and helping students with debt loads to close the income gap.
"We need to do a better job with our young people," he said.
Meanwhile, there are some 3 million waiting workers eyed to lose unemployment benefits. While some say the aid enables people to stop looking for jobs, Neal disputes the claim, saying that "you don't quit your job to get food stamps."
But there is a "stubborn" unemployment rate and Congress needs to get people back to work, he said. When the unemployment rate goes down, the pressure on social service spending is also decreased.
Neal says income inequality will be a priority of his this year.
The Democratic congressman is also pushing for tax reform. He wants to close "loopholes" in the tax code including being "critical" of tax wording that allows companies to harbor funds off-shore. There are companies that are moving funds to places like Bermuda to avoid taxation.
Again, that will be a complicated issue. He cited tax credits in place for research that will benefit Massachusetts' biggest employers. There are breaks for charitable giving, which benefit the tourism industry here, and homeowner reductions and employer-based health insurance, all tax breaks many will oppose but he'd like to keep.
There are such tax breaks for things like summer homes. And there are corporate loopholes that could be closed. He says he isn't in favor of a major tax cut but supports closing the loopholes to pay off the debt. Many have said the corporate rate is too high, but Neal says with the tax breaks, the average corporation pays closer to 13 or 14 percent.
Neal wants to dig into the national debt. He said that in the 1990s, when President Clinton was in office, the country was paying off the debt too quickly. But, he wanted to keep that on track and when the second President Bush took office, Neal pleaded the case to provide only modest tax breaks and continue to pay it off.
Instead, Bush gave two major tax cuts and then the costly war in Iraq, raising the debt.
The county is now still in a recession, Neal said, but there are positives moving forward. He said the county's energy production has greatly increased.
"We are on the edge of energy independence," Neal said. "For America to retool, we need to take advantage of this energy independence. We need to take advantage of the community college structure, it has enormous potential."
But progress is increasingly difficult. Neal said Republicans in recent years have moved more toward the right and arguments in Congress occur over everything. It used to be a lot easier for Congress to hammer out an agreement, he said, for programs like Social Security.
In 1,000 days, there will be another presidential election, he said, so he is concerned that the gridlock may not be overcome right away as both parties prepare for midterm elections.
Other issues he sees upcoming is immigration reform, which he supports as a "path to citizenship," and relations with Iran, believing the president needs more time to reach agreements.