By Claire Walla
Seated at several tables inside Page, Main Street’s newest addition to the restaurant world, roughly 40 members of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce sat down last Thursday, April 28 with U.S. Congressman Tim Bishop to talk shop.
Over plates of steak and monk fish, the crowd asked a handful of questions ranging from health care to oil subsidies. And Bishop — a Southampton native — answered them all.
As to be expected, he said everything comes back to the country’s most prominent issue: the deficit.
“A year ago, there was nothing else being discussed in Washington but health care, and now there’s nothing else being discussed in Washington but our debt and our deficit,” he said.
Bishop explained that the United States is now operating with a $3.7 trillion budget, $1.6 trillion of which is borrowed.
“Anybody who tells you we can balance our budget by simply reducing our spending is either being delusional or dishonest, because it simply cannot happen.”
“What we have to do is recognize that everything has to be on the table,” he continued. “I also hope that we will be guided by two fundamental principals, one is fairness, and the other is shared sacrifice.”
The idea of making carefully crafted cuts in order to maintain funding in certain areas was at the heart of Bishop’s message that night.
Bishop highlighted programs like Medicaid, for example, which he said the budget aims to cut by $80 billion, pointing out that one in three children receive health care benefits from this federally financed program. As for spending cuts, Bishop explained in a follow-up interview that the nation needs to curb farm subsidies.
“We’re spending billions of dollars a year to stop farmers from farming their crops,” he said. “This money does not go to the mom-and-pop farms, but the large agro-farms in the U.S.”
He also said defense spending — which he noted has more than doubled in the last eight years — needs to be reduced.
A point of contention for many small business owners at last week’s dinner was the tax credits and subsidies currently afforded big oil companies. Oil companies save around $5 million every year in tax breaks and subsidies, Bishop continued, “which they simply don’t need.”
In a question-and-answer session after his speech, local mortgage banker and broker Judy McDowell asked the congressman why Washington has allowed for such large tax breaks when local business owners are suffering to stay afloat.
Bishop noted at the event that he planned to introduce legislation this week, which seeks to eliminate tax breaks for the top five oil companies. (Similar legislation was brought up in Congress in 2005 as part of an energy bill policy, but Bishop noted it didn’t pass.)
Barbara Frerichs, who owns a business called the Mosquito Squad, asked Bishop why the money used for the bank bailout in 2008 went exclusively to large firms, rather than to the small business owners who have suffered in the wake of the economic collapse.
“The money that we were providing to the banks should have been much more actively loaned out, particularly to small businesses. That was a big mistake,” Bishop said. “They got burned very, very badly, in my opinion, because of their own policies and because of their own greed-driven approach, and now they’re holding back.. We have to get banks lending again.”
The last question of the night came from Louis Grignon of the Sag Harbor Yacht Yard who complained of paying steadily increasing fees each year for health insurance.
“I’m 100 percent behind health care reform,” he said. “But it doesn’t address the cost.”
By 2014, Bishop said, the health care reform bill will introduce the concept of state-based exchanges, which will bring small business owners to the bargaining table.
“What we’re trying to do is take the power of who gets to ration care, and who gets to buy out of the health insurance companies and provide it to businesses and individuals.”
In the end, Bishop concluded, “I hope we’re guided by this really simple principal of shared sacrifice. I’m not prepared to ask the less fortunate among us to take all of the burden while we ask the most fortunate among us that their only contribution is to get yet another tax cut. I’m not prepared to do that.”