Freshman Congressman Peter Visclosky is getting an earful on frittered federal dollars from his Northwest Indiana constituents: ``I think we're being suckered -- everytime the Pentagon wants more money, all it has to do is stand up and say, `The Russians are coming,' '' says Carl Daun, a retired Hammond teacher and World War II veteran.
``You people are always talking about a freeze over there in Washington, but why don't you freeze everybody?'' asks a social security recipient concerned his checks from Washington next year may not keep pace with inflation.
Standing in front of a packed room in a branch of the Hammond Public Library, Representative Visclosky, a Democrat, deftly fields questions and comments, and seizes every educational opportunity.
He agrees that it is only fair that a freeze on social security benefits and other domestic programs should also include what he calls ``a freeze on generals and admirals.'' But he stresses that the social security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), to which many voters insist they're entitled, was added in the 1960s when the system was more affluent. It is not a constitutional ``right,'' he says.
It is the week of the July 4 congressional break. And Visclosky, a swift-talking young lawyer who represents a heavily Democratic, blue-collar steelworker district along the southern edge of Lake Michigan, is doing what he normally does three weekends a month. He is chatting with the voters back home in Indiana.
Though he has been in office fewer than six months, Visclosky knows first-hand the merits of keeping in close touch with the voters. As the underdog in a three-way Democratic primary a year ago, he knocked on 33,000 doors and won by fewer than 3,000 votes.
On this particular day, the congressman, who spent several years as a legislative aide to the late Rep. Adam Benjamin Jr., one of the district's most popular representatives, is leading well-attended public forums in both Hammond and East Chicago, Ind. In between, he races over to Hammond's main street to attend a flag-raising for the community's annual Little Red Schoolhouse Parade.
Indianans at both forums appear concerned above all about the safety of the social security system. Their congressman makes no predictions on what will happen with the COLA, currently the object of a Senate-House deadlock. But he assures listeners that the system is sound and that there will be no cuts.
Despite the district's double-digit unemployment rate, there are few questions about jobs. But virtually everyone here has strong views on wasted federal money. They rail at everything from the cost of unpaid student loans and myriad presidential libraries (``Why don't you just put them all in one building?'') to medicare bills (``a plain and simple racket'') and foreign aid. Visclosky agrees with much of what's said. But he stresses that foreign aid often helps US product sales, citing the recent transfer of Indiana-made tank parts to Egypt.
And when it comes to federal spending that hits closer to home -- such as money for highways, Amtrak (which employs many Hoosiers and serves as a commuter line), and lakeshore improvement -- the constituents want to know why their region can't be helped.
``I'm not making an excuse about no money -- there is no money,'' says Visclosky, who insists balancing the budget must be the nation's top priority. He stresses that 40 cents of every tax dollar now goes to pay interest on the federal debt. He says he judges all spending requests in the context of whether someone will perish or go without food, shelter, or education if money is not given.
The congressman, who seems never to need a pause for breath, comes across to his constituents as serious and often more direct than diplomatic. He tells the story on himself of having told a group in Merrillville that he wouldn't protest planned Amtrak cuts only to receive a flood of 300 letters. All, as he facetiously tells it, began, `Listen here, Bozo.' Hammond's Mr. Daun recalls that it was Visclosky's candid answer to a question Daun asked about military intervention in Central America (the congressman is strongly opposed) that won his support.
Visclosky's earnest and unemotional manner seems to make few enemies even when he disagrees with points made. When Kenneth Ainsley of East Chicago asks, ``When do we call a halt?'' on immigration, the congressman (who is of Czechoslovakian ancestry) says he is delighted Americans were generous enough to welcome his grandparents into this country. ``That's what gives America its vitality,'' he says. Mr. Ainsley, who describes himself as a ``far right'' Republican, favors much stronger curbs on immigation. But he later describes the congressman as ``a bright young man who is trying to take a middle course.''
``People sometimes get upset when I don't agree with them, but it's never been obnoxious,'' Visclosky says. He views the give-and-take grass-roots sessions as a welcome balance from the heavy special-interest lobbying by mail (five deliveries a day) that he receives in Washington.
Here he gets to explain the nuances of votes constituents may have found confusing. And they have a channel to give Capitol Hill their two cents' worth.
Does he ever go back to Washington a changed man? ``I'm always changing,'' insists this bachelor, who describes himself as slightly more liberal than the bulk of his constituents on social issues and similarly conservative on fiscal issues. He says he thought he was unique until he read more about ``Yuppies'' whose political views are similar to his.
He says he thinks the Democratic Party nationally has a sound message to convey on the theme of ``justice'' but is still ``a long way'' from being able to convey it successfully. ``Part of the problem is that a lot of the people who are now middle class are there because someone gave their parents a chance and they've forgotten that -- there's less of a sense of generosity.''