Newport Daily News: Conversation comes full circle

Rep. David N. Cicilline talks with local officials and constituents during a ‘Neighborhood Conversation.’

By Sean Flynn

Staff writer, Newport Daily News

NEWPORT — Local resident Wanda Jean Lord came to the “Neighborhood Conversation” hosted Tuesday night by U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., to thank him for a position he recently took in Congress.

“I appreciate your stand against going to war in Syria,” she said, earning applause from many of the more than 50 people at the event at the Newport Public Library.

Cicilline and his staff set up chairs in a large circle in the library’s program room for a back-and-forth discussion about issues facing Congress, what the congressman is working on, and what constituents want. It was the third in a series of neighborhood meetings Cicilline is holding across the state.

For more than two hours, the discussion was lively.

When the conversation came to Syria, a couple of the participants were critical of President Barack Obama for first saying he would order a military strike, then deciding to seek authorization from Congress, and finally backing a proposal from Russian President Vladimir Putin to persuade Syria to turn its chemical weapons over to international control.

“The president showed a lack of leadership,” said Will Vann Jr. of Quincy, Mass. “We don’t have a real vision from the president on Syria or on other issues.”

Cicilline disagreed, saying Obama saw the unpopularity of an American strike on Syria and reacted to it.

“It was a wonderful lesson on democracy for the world,” he said. “We previously had a president who was dead certain about everything.”

One young woman who did not give her name said she was concerned about the number of people who have multiple parttime jobs because employers do not want to hire full-time and pay for health care and other benefits.

Cicilline said he shared the concern.

“We used to have a model of shared prosperity in this country in which ownership, management and workers all benefited as the company and profits expanded,” he said. “That’s no longer the case. Where once the CEO made 40 times as much as the average worker, now the CEO’s compensation is more than 250 times that of the worker. Now, companies cut the hours of employees so they don’t have to pay health insurance.”

“Protecting the defense industry on Aquidneck Island is the single best thing you can do for us,” John J. Egan of Newport told Cicilline. “That’s where our key jobs are.”

“The single biggest issue facing Congress is the economy and getting everyone back to work,” Cicilline said.

It was an issue that kept coming up in the discussion.

“The president has put forward a comprehensive jobs bill that would put two million workers to work,” the congressman said. “We can’t get a vote on the bill.”

He said an extremely conservative group in the House of Representatives known as tea party members are more concerned about taking positions than getting anything done.

“This is a group who have taken control of our chamber and don’t support anything that would create jobs and help the economy,” he said.

“One of the most discouraging things to me is when people in Congress propose bills with massive cuts to education, science and research — all things that are key to building our economy,” he said.

For example, he said, recent scientific research indicating that a cure for Alzheimer’s disease may be developed, would provide huge savings in the health care industry.

Some of the participants came well prepared. Lord, who opened her remarks talking about Syria, cited a May report from the Congressional Budget Office showing the projected federal deficit was $203 billion less than projected in February and tax revenues were higher than originally projected.

She said that development shows how unnecessary the $64 billion sequestration that took place on March 1 was, a cut that severely cut programs like Head Start. She asked why Congress has not acted to restore the funding.

At that point and others, the conversation came back to congressional gridlock.

Cicilline said the Senate passed an overall federal budget bill and the House of Representatives passed an overall budget bill. Normally, a conference committee would meet and work out a compromise bill to be presented to both branches of Congress. That has not happened, he said.

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, has refused to appoint members to serve on the conference committee, Cicilline said, because he knows the Republican budget would be negatively received by the American public once its provisions were discussed in televised committee meetings.

“This is the first time we haven’t had a conference committee after the House and Senate have both passed budgets,” Cicilline said.

He urged people to write senators and House members demanding a budget.

Newport City Councilwoman Jeanne-Marie Napolitano asked about the prospects of gun control legislation.

The first step would be to pass common-sense legislation that keeps firearms out of the hands of criminals and people with serious mental illness, Cicilline responded.

But he said the National Rifle Association “is so powerful, and the money they spend on lobbying is unbelievable. The NRA strategy, which has been effective, is to say that every bill, no matter how reasonable, is the beginning of taking away their guns.”

“A lot began going wrong when Citizens United came into our lives,” said Anne Joslin of Newport, referring to the 5-4 Supreme Court decision from 2010 that lifted restrictions on the amounts individuals, corporations and labor unions could give to political action committees, or PACs.

“The tea party was built on Citizens United,” Joslin said.

“It is the most corrosive thing affecting our democracy right now, because you can give unlimited amounts of money to SuperPACs,” Cicilline said. Names of donors do have to be released, he said.

The result is that special interests like “Big Oil,” for example, will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on candidates willing to change the tax code in ways that will mean millions of dollars in profits to oil companies, he said.

“There is a direct return on their investment,” Cicilline said.

There is no similar return on investment when people support legislation promoting child nutrition, public health, or Head Start, he said.

“We have a bill to reverse Citizens United; we have a disclosure bill; but we can’t get these bills to the floor,” Cicilline said.