WASHINGTON — Washington--They arrived by the hundreds, on personalized stationery and lined paper, and postcards, faxes, telegrams -- even cartoons.
Some were pleading, some were angry.
many were angry. And the constituent ire was directed at the budget accord forged by President Bush and the congressional leadership.
The general theme of the messages piling up last week at Representative Helen Delich Bentley's office ran something like this: I don't like this budget plan because it affects me (through Medicare premium increases or gasoline tax increases or fill-in-the-blank taxes). Either get the money from the rich or cut spending. Or both.
The letters were running about 8-to-1 against the agreement, according to staff aides for the Lutherville Republican.
"Please vote against more taxes," penned Richard Kramer of Bel Air. "Please vote for much lower spending."
"We worked hard for more than 40 years," wrote a retired Timonium couple unhappy about increased Medicare costs.
"I am furious," declared Ann Marie Rezac of Overlea in Baltimore County. "I do not want taxes raised. I want you to cut spending and I think you should start at the top." The "top," she explained, was the 33 percent congressional pay raise that takes effect next year.
"It is a complete farce. The burden is being placed on the elderly and the middle class working citizens," wrote one woman from Timonium, who didn't close with the traditional "Cordially" or "Sincerely." She signed off as "Extremely Upset." Another writer chose the more pointed "See you at the polls."
Many of the letters reflect the contradiction of the American voter: cut spending, unless it affects one of my programs. Tax the rich, unless that includes me.
They want Congress to do something and boo congressmen for incompetence from the House gallery, but they don't like what Congress has done. Few letter writers mention the deficit, as if it were someone else's problem.
But all of this leaves their politicians -- supposed to represent the will of the people and to act for the good of the nation -- virtually paralyzed and playing for time.
Consider Mrs. Bentley's situation. She's a conservative Republican who often champions the working man. She's a genius at delivering constituent services to the blue-collar workers of her district, but she also has to appeal to the well-off residents of suburban Baltimore and Harford counties. They're the "rich" people that Mrs. Bentley's other constituents think should be footing more of the nation's bills.
So Mrs. Bentley can't go along with the Republicans on Capitol Hill who oppose any higher taxes for the wealthy for fear of alienating her working-class following. She can't anger her well-off district residents -- and the more moderate ones -- by refusing to cut spending. She doesn't lecture her constituents about the need for everyone to sacrifice to reduce the budget deficit because sacrifice is painful. And she can't do nothing, because that would suggest she's an ineffective legislator.
Mrs. Bentley and her colleagues heard America loud and clear last week.
The House voted down the first budget accord, 254-179. Mrs. Bentley and other lawmakers agreed with their constituents and opposed the increases in Medicare premiums and taxes on gasoline, liquor and cigarettes.
And while a second budget agreement passed Congress last week -- with planned lower Medicare increases and tax rises that will be determined by congressional committees -- it still did not win the support of Mrs. Bentley.
"We're adding taxes but we're not cutting spending," the congresswoman grumbled following the vote.
Mrs. Bentley said she supports a five-year budget proposal she helped draft with Representatives Carl D. Pursell, R-Mich., and John R. Kasich, R-Ohio, that rejects taxes on gasoline and petroleum products and calls for a domestic spending freeze -- without increases for inflation during the first year -- and adjustments for inflation during the next four years. Defense spending would be cut by $10 billion next year. The plan would lower the capital gains tax rate from 28 percent to 15 percent, although Mrs. Bentley favors a reduction to about 20 percent or 22 percent.
The plan would also slightly increase taxes for the highest-income Americans, those married joint filers with incomes over $177,000, while lowering from 33 percent to 31 percent the top tax rate for 4 million married couples earning from $78,000 to $185,000.
Despite Mrs. Bentley's dislike of the original budget deal, some of her constituents found it acceptable.
One Baltimore man, who urged a vote in favor of the "imperfect agreement," wrote on the birthday of his 2-year-old daughter and said he feared the effects of the budget deficit on her future. "I don't like paying 12 cents more per gallon for gas, but I would gladly pay twice that if it meant she would be spared paying 30 years from now for the excesses of today," he wrote.