Dashing between ceremonies and speeches last week, freshman U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt confronted two contrasting views of the job he and other Republicans in Congress are doing.
Some of his Eastern Washington constituents were wildly positive. Members of four chambers of commerce gave him a standing ovation after he described efforts to cut the deficit, spending and government regulation in historic terms.
Others were less enthusiastic.
Managers for senior centers around the state were polite but worried about possible changes to Medicare and questioned the GOP strategies.
“Everyone knows the bureaucracy is bad and there’s too much red tape,” a woman in the audience told Nethercutt after he explained the “Contract with America.” “But the programs you’re trying to cut will cause problems down the road. Don’t take regulators out, take the bureaucrats out.”
Students and faculty at Eastern Washington University were sharper in their criticism of education cuts while tax incentives to businesses and farms - what is called corporate welfare - remain.
“You cut the old, the poor, the disabled,” said a student in the back of a crowd filling the Pence Union Building lounge. “Why didn’t you cut big business subsidies?”
Five months into his term, Nethercutt confronts the dilemma that has plagued Congress for a generation: Reducing the deficit may be good for the country as a whole, but it can be painful for individuals in your own district.
As he moved around Spokane during the Memorial Day recess, his theme remained the same: Republicans were making great strides in getting the nation back on track; give us your suggestions, but be patient while we work out the details.
But the delivery varied.
To business leaders, he talked glowingly of increased opportunity from decreased government intervention.
“The federal government is massive and invasive. It’s a deterrent to a capitalistic society,” he told the chambers of commerce members gathered in the ballroom of the Spokane Valley Red Lion Inn.
To those who rely on government assistance - senior citizens, welfare recipients and students - he promised shared sacrifice.
“You’re right in demanding compassion in the way we’re spending money,” he told managers of senior centers. “We must make sure there’s a sense of fairness.”
Although Nethercutt’s stops last week were standard fare for a lawmaker home on recess - ribbon cuttings, a graduation speech, rubber chicken forums and a parade - there was a sense of urgency about it.
Republicans lost the public relations debate over the school lunch program earlier this year, he said. Their plan to combine several nutrition programs, turn them into block grants and reduce the rates of increase were denounced by Democrats as cuts that would hurt children.
The new battle cry will be corporate welfare, a term that Democrats sharing the podium with him at the conference for senior center managers were quick to use.
“Corporate welfare is a term that’s very appropriate,” U.S. Sen. Patty Murray said.
In an interview at the end of the week, Nethercutt said the public relations battle is just starting. People who use a term like corporate welfare are trying to polarize the country and oversimplify complicated tax policy issues, he said while firing back with some rhetoric of his own.
“Democrats feel class warfare is an effective political tactic,” he said. “Corporate welfare is a misnomer. Those who receive (business incentives) employ people who pay taxes.”
At meeting after meeting, he asked critics to wait and listen to the upcoming debate, which will take place this summer as Congress decides how to spend money. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he’ll be involved in those debates.
At most of his stops, Nethercutt continued to enjoy a rapport with voters that comes from a combination of his nice-guy attitude and his historic upset victory in 1994.
But there were a few signs of potential problems for the 1996 re-election campaign.
For all his talk about reducing the size of government, Nethercutt repeated his pledge to fight to keep a federal office open in Spokane.
The Clinton Administration wants to consolidate that office with the main office in Seattle. Democrats are already accusing him of trying to have it both ways on budget cuts.
“The SBA and the community it serves provide good benefits to Spokane,” he said before cutting the ribbon for the new Business Information Center at the Spokane Area Chamber of Commerce.
He could also confront the anti-government anger that helped him oust a 15-term incumbent. One student at EWU asked what a congressman makes, and when told $133,600 a year, pointedly shot back: “How about Congress taking a reduction?”
Nethercutt’s explanations that he now has the added expenses of uprooting a family, paying $3,000 a month to rent a second home were met with derision, as was his statement “I’m working my head off for you.”
Later he said he was confident he could convince most people he was earning his pay, and that talk of cutting congressional salaries doesn’t really advance the discussion of reducing a $200 billion deficit.
“The person that asked that question, I would bet, voted for Tom Foley,” he added.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo