TOMAH — There was no shouting. There were no interruptions. There were no long and loud moments of applause.
Instead, Sunday’s Monroe County listening session conducted by U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold was a civil gathering of 60 constituents in the Brookwood High School gymnasium. While several audience members asked pointed questions about federal spending and rising budget deficits, the orderly tone allowed 35 people to speak in 90 minutes.
Feingold acknowledged that other crowds have been rougher.
“You should have seen the one I had a couple of weeks ago,” he said.
The most popular topic was the federal deficit. David Steinert of Tomah said significant budget cuts are needed. Steinert wants Congress to end the bank bailouts and apply the unused stimulus funds to deficit reduction. He said the stimulus money only protected the jobs of state and local public employees.
“The government is hogging the loan window,” Steinert said. “We have to stop this deficit. We don’t have the money.”
Feingold agreed. He touted his own plan to reduce federal spending by $500 billion, including the elimination of cotton subsidies and a radio service that broadcasts into Cuba.
He said deficit reduction was the defining issue of his first Senate campaign in 1992.
“We did it before — we did it in the 1990s,” Feingold said. “There was no deficit when Bill Clinton left office, and that’s a credit to both parties.”
Feingold said he and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., want to reform the budget process by allowing a single senator to object to any earmark and requiring 60 votes to override the objection. Feingold also supports a presidential line-item veto.
Judy Rezin of Tomah expressed frustration with government waste. She said it was wrong for Congress to send 101 people to the December climate change conference in Copenhagen.
“How can you justify these kinds of expenses when the finances of our government ... are in such disarray?” she asked.
Feingold replied: “I don’t have to justify it because I thought it was dumb, too. I’ve never been to Copenhagen.”
The crowd then applauded when Feingold said members of Congress won’t be getting a pay raise this year.
Three audience members praised Feingold for his opposition to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Lisa Rowell of Ontario questioned the cost of the wars and how the money is spent.
“I feel passionately about the war profiteering going on in Iraq and Afghanistan,” she said. “It’s really shameful.”
Feingold agreed, and questioned the number of military functions awarded to private contractors.
Two asked questions about the Veterans Administration medical system and whether it could handle a growing caseload. Feingold said veterans health care should be an entitlement like Social Security and Medicare and not subject to annual budget outlays.
“When you tell somebody who goes and fights a war that we’re going to fund your health care, that’s an entitlement, and it should be funded,” he said.
Most who brought up health care favored universal coverage, and nobody raised the specter of government rationing or death panels. Betty Cronin of Tomah spoke favorably of the Canadian system.
“I have cousins in Canada, and they hardly ever say anything bad about their health care,” she said.
Feingold said he’s skeptical about horror stories told by critics.
“Comments about the Canadian system tend to be second- or third-hand,” he said.
He defended his vote for health care reform. While he preferred a bill with a public option — a measure he said was necessary to control abuses by private insurance companies — he said the Senate bill will extend health insurance to 30 million people.
Feingold agreed with a speaker’s frustration about filibusters and other tactics used to block legislation and presidential appointments. However, Feingold doesn’t want to eliminate the filibuster, which requires 60 votes to end debate.
“You do want things slowed down — trust me,” he said.
Feingold favors a return to a more traditional filibuster that requires senators using the tactic to remain on the Senate floor.