Only about 40 people showed up at Rep. Adam Smith’s Town Hall Meeting in Newcastle on Thursday evening.

Smith said that Americans are deeply in denial about the choices we face.  When polled, people say they want the same or more government spending on education, health care, research, etc., and even the military. But nobody wants to pay taxes (unless someone else pays them, Smith said — a right wing talking point).   Some people say the deficit is not a big problem.  Smith disagrees and so does the public, he said:  the public is quite concerned about the budget deficit. Afterwards I challenged him on this. I told him that I read that the budget deficit is low on the list of voters’ concerns. He backtracked and said, I didn’t say it was number one.

Smith blamed both the citizens — who expect government services, low taxes, and balanced budgets — and politicians — who promise the impossible.

Q: Why does Congress have lower approval rating than used car salesmen?

A: They would hate us more if we actually did anything (raise taxes or cut spending).

Smith cosponsored a bill to collect taxes on Internet sales.

Q: Long term, what’s needed to fix the dysfunction in D.C.?

Some people say the problem is that Dems won’t cut spending and Repubs won’t raise taxes. But it’s worse than that, Smith said. Because cutting taxes polls so well, even Democrats do it with gusto;  Democrats gave away $125 billion in tax cuts. And during the 2010 midterm elections, Republicans attacked Democrats for cutting Medicare benefits! That was their #1 attack  ad.  Go figure.

On the topic of education, Smith said he supports collective bargaining and public education. But he thinks teachers need to be more realistic. He quoted teachers who say, “I don’t want my pay to depend on the whims of my boss.” People in private sector jobs have to face that all the time.

Q:  Are you pushing the Obama Administration to regulate greenhouse gases?

A: I’m not, but I may sign onto a letter if asked.

Q: Would term limits help?

A:  No, new candidates would be subject to the same lobbying and would still need to raise campaign funds. Do you want elected officials who are even less accountable to voters?

Smith said some progressive things. He said the New Year fiscal cliff deal that made 90% of tax cuts permanent was a big mistake. “Way, way, way too much” in tax cuts.

Q:  What top two or three things would you do?

A:  Make a 10 year budget deal that brings back some of the taxes, creates cost controls on health care, and devotes some money to needed infrastructure repairs.

Someone asked whether Smith has the “guts” to sign the Grayson-Takano letter pledging not to cut Social Security.  He said he hasn’t signed the pledge because he thinks there are cost savings to be had.   Medicare and Social Security are part of mandatory spending, and unless we can rein in costs, there’ll be too little money left for discretionary spending.

There weren’t enough progressives in the audience to strongly defend Social Security and Medicare and to mention progressive talking points (concentration of wealth, corporations not paying taxes, negotiation of drug prices, insurance overheads, off-shoring of jobs, etc).  I got to ask only one question, because others wanted their turn.

Adam Smith in Newcastle Adam Smith in Newcastle

Smith is the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Serviced Committee, so he is especially important for the issue of military spending.  Several people applauded when I made the case for cuts to the military budget. I said that the U.S. spends more than the next 20 nations combined; that we’ve engaged in repeated disastrous, corrupt wars; and that the military classifies anything that might embarrass it.

Smith said that the military consumes 18% of the budget. Acquisition reform is starting to work, at last. “We do need to stop the wars.” For example, in Syria.  It’s not our job to fix every international crisis.

Someone asked a follow-up question in which they mentioned that the U.S. has over 500 military bases in 137 countries.  “That’s not defense, it’s colonization.” Smith said that there are even more than 500 bases. But not all bases are the same. Some of them are very small. Yes, he opposes major ground invasions, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, he agrees there are costs savings to be had. He much prefers the model of operations in the Horn of Africa, where a triple-digit number of troops and operatives — the exact number is classified — have stopped Muslim extremists. The questioner asked whether the US can be the policeman of the world. Smith said that we still need some presence overseas. “I am not an isolationist. Because we are the United States we face threats.”  We’re the guarantor vs. North Korea, for example. We stopped Sadaam Hussein, who wouldn’t have stopped in Kuwait.  We can’t let Iran block the Strait of Hormuz. Then there’s Mali, Somalia, and Yemen. We can do less. 5100 nuclear weapons is too many.

A tough-looking ex-soldier (military attache) made the case for counting service in Africa as combat duty. He went on to use jargon that I didn’t understand, but Adam Smith apparently did.

Someone asked about the growing threat from China. Smith said that he’s more worried about North Korea, Iran, and Al Qaeda.

Q:  When are we going to stop the NRA running our government policies?

A: Smith agreed and said that he supports the right to own guns but thinks we need common sense regulations about background checks and high-capacity magazines.

Many people in the audience expressed strong opposition to allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens. Adam Smith supports a path to legalization and took some heat for his position.

I was surprised to hear the passion concerning illegal immigration. Several people asked why illegal immigrants are allowed to break the law and receive various benefits, including Social Security.   Smith said that illegal immigrants can’t receive Social Security benefits, unless they pay into the program in their paychecks. (To be fair, I heard from a friend of a case where an illegal immigrant used a deceased person’s social security number.) Someone said, “I don’t see how you can vote to let illegals in.  I taught at schools with lots of free lunch students. We require our students to follow rules.  Send them [illegals] back!”  Smith said that we need to give the immigrants a pathway to citizenship because rounding them up and sending them overseas would turn the country into a police state. Also, many illegals are solid, tax-paying citizens who perform needed jobs.   People imagine that many of them are criminals. Well, many American citizens are criminals too.   Smith mentioned that President Obama has deported more people than ever before.  We already have a border fence, etc.

During discussions on other topics, some of the anti-immigration people shouted out interjections “legal people only!”

In general, Smith’s response to every question was, “Yes, but.” He can see both sides of most issues and tried to satisfy all voters. I can understand why politicians would be tempted to aim for the center. Unfortunately, the center has moved to the right in recent years. We need to shift it back to the left.

For a related article see Adam Smith and Suzan DelBene defend their votes on Social Security and the budget.