Watt says stimulus program not all pleasant, but necessary

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

By Steve Huffman
U.S. Rep. Mel Watt told a group gathered Thursday night at Rufty-Holmes Senior Center he wasn’t in town to defend his vote on the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The $787 billion package, which Watt supported, is intended to stimulate the economy. The bill was signed Tuesday by President Obama.
Watt, a Democrat who represents part of Rowan County, told close to 50 people who attended a version of a Town Hall meeting that the legislation was necessary.
Not necessarily pleasant, he said, but necessary.
“I will defend that we did what had to be done,” Watt said of he and fellow members of the U.S. House and Senate.
Does that mean the version of the bill that was passed was perfect? No, Watt readily admitted.
“I’ve been there 17 years,” he said of his stint in Congress, “and I still haven’t voted on a perfect piece of legislation.”
Watt said more than 500 representatives voted on the package, and said each would undoubtedly have come up with a different version had they been given the opportunity.
What was passed, Watt said, was intended to make the best of a bad ó and potentially disastrous ó situation.
“We have to deal with the circumstances as they are,” Watt said.
He said the bill’s passage can be traced to late September when House and Senate members were called back to Washington, D.C., for an emergency gathering.
“We were on the verge of a catastrophic event,” Watt said. “No action would have been more catastrophic than the Great Depression.”
He said passage of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) was initially intended to buy toxic assets from banks to free up money for lending.
But it was soon decided that the best use of the bill’s money was for investments.
“You can second-guess the whole concept of TARP,” Watt admitted. “You can second-guess if it made any sense. (But) I’m told that if it wasn’t done, it would have been a complete meltdown of the economic system.”
Watt said a downturn in spending had resulted in a $3.8 trillion hole in the U.S. economy. He said the downturn has been so dramatic that he questions if even a $787 billion stimulus package is enough to jump-start the economy.
“I’m not sure $787 billion is enough to fill a $3.8 trillion hole,” Watt said.
That said, he outlined how the package will affect Rowan County and the rest of North Carolina, presenting all attendees with sheets detailing how the money will be spent.
Watt said the package will give Rowan County an economic boost of $100 million.
“I’m not defending that number, I’m just reporting,” Watt said.
Moments later, he added, “In theory, you put money into the economy to try and fill the hole.”
Including a question-and-answer period, Watt spoke for two hours Thursday, also extensively addressing the matter of the Yadkin River bridge. Gov. Bev Perdue had announced earlier Thursday she plans to go after discretionary grant money for a new bridge.
The Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes $1.5 billion in discretionary grants to be awarded to states for transportation projects.
Watt said some Davidson County officials said Thursday they think there’s a 95 percent likelihood money for the Yadkin River bridge’s replacement will come from those grants.
Watt said he was “100 percent committed” to the project, but said he’ll believe that funding has been earmarked for the new bridge when he sees it.
“It’s certainly the most dangerous bridge in North Carolina,” Watt said. “It’s among the most dangerous bridges in the United States.”
Watt took questions from group members for the better part of an hour, addressing a number of issues. Those questions pertained to everything from how to deal with the problem with illegal aliens to problems at the Hefner VA Medical Center.
Watt was patient in dealing with his constituents, listening to each as they sometimes went into great detail in explaining their concerns.
One woman said she and her husband had been conservative with their finances over the years, paying off their house and putting their children through college.
She asked how the stimulus package was going to help them.
Watt said he was glad to address any question thrown at him, but said he couldn’t throw out blanket statements, noting that everyone in the room would be affected in different ways.
“I’d have to analyze your entire situation,” Watt told the woman. “I don’t think we can address that in this situation.”
On another occasion, a man complained for several minutes about bankers getting exorbitant bonuses after running their businesses almost into financial ruin.
“It’s plain to me these people are not worth the money they’re making, much less the bonuses,” the man said.
Watt said he didn’t disagree, but he added that airing such complaints wasn’t the purpose of the Town Hall meeting.
“Ask a question and I’ll try to answer it,” he told the man.
One woman told Watt she was so afraid of the Interstate 85 bridge over the Yadkin River that she always exited and took the U.S. 29 bridge that leads into Spencer.
But the woman continued to say she found the U.S. 29 bridge to be in equally bad shape.
Watt responded that when it comes to new bridges, the work must be done one at a time.
“I’m not even going to stand here and try to tell you I’m working on that (U.S. 29) bridge,” Watt said, his words prompting a round of laughter.
Eleanor Qadirah of the Rowan Blues and Jazz Society thanked Watt for his support of the arts, then asked why there was not money for the arts in the stimulus package.
Watt said money for such had initially been included, but was taken out after “it became a political football.”
He said government support of the arts would continue, and said he sympathized with the number of out-of-work performers.
“We’ve got symphony orchestras with the best musicians that are laying off,” Watt said.
Asked about illegal aliens, Watt encouraged individuals to contact the U.S. Department of Labor if they knew of companies they were knowingly hiring such individuals.
He said that as is the case with many things involving the government, solving the problem is often more difficult than many people realize.
“It is out of control,” Watt said of the problem with illegal aliens in the workforce.