GOP contract fails to win raves back home in N.J.


BLOOMINGDALE, N.J. -- First-term Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, one of the 73 Republican freshmen who helped give Speaker Newt Gingrich his controlling majority in the House last Nov. 8, was back in his 11th Congressional District the other night to report on the celebrated first 100 days.

At the local firehouse hall, Frelinghuysen opened his town meeting for about 100 local residents with a recitation of the Republican House team's accomplishment of passing nine of the 10 items in its "Contract with America." He told them that "what characterizes the new Congress is a new openness. . . . We've been delivering on our promises."

Then Frelinghuysen took questions. It was nearly an hour and a half, however, before any questioner in this solidly Republican, very affluent district had a word to say, good or bad, about the contract.

Instead, what Frelinghuysen heard were the same old gripes about Washington that were being aired around the country before the Republicans won control of the House, made Gingrich the speaker and launched their 100-day push for their contract.

The first questioner wanted to know whether it was true that New Jersey's return on its federal tax dollars was the lowest in the nation and if so, "What is being done about it?"

Frelinghuysen acknowledged that the state was "very low" on the list and agreed it deserved a fairer share.

Next, a constituent noted the bailout of the Mexican peso and wanted to know, "Who's going to do the U.S. bailout?" The congressman replied that it was important to cut the federal deficit "so we don't end up like Mexico."

A third voter asked how he stood on flag burning and was pleased to hear that Frelinghuysen was a co-sponsor of a bill to amend the Constitution to ban it.

A fourth voter asked what he intended to do about the fact the country was being "inundated with illegal immigrants."

Frelinghuysen acknowledged that "we have to do something" about the nation's porous borders and said that "denial of benefits" might be one answer.

A fifth constituent complained that jury duty didn't pay enough and the fee should be raised to $50 a day. A sixth petitioned for more money for local flood control.

It went on like that for more than an hour. Frelinghuysen earlier had reported that he was a member of the House Appropriations Committee, noting that: "There was a time when you served on that committee that you were known for bringing home the bacon. It's important that New Jersey get what it deserves, but I don't plan to bring home the bacon because too many members of Congress brought home bacon and it bankrupted us."

The audience applauded, but that didn't stem the subsequent flow of special pleading.

A local mayor in the congressional district noted that the Army Corps of Engineers was requiring certain expensive work on a local reservoir and wanted to know: "Will there be any federal relief? I'm the last one who wants pork, but this is a federal mandate." Frelinghuysen promised to look into the matter.

There were, as is routinely the case at such town meetings, questions about Social Security benefits, a complaint about the size of congressional pensions and the treatment of federal retirees.

Not until all these gripes were aired did somebody in the audience finally get up and tell Frelinghuysen: "After 40 years [of Democratic control], I'm delighted with the last 100 days."

The new congressman seized on the comment to report that Congress was no longer on the old Tuesday-to-Thursday schedule, but was working six days a week or more, voting on many pieces of legislation "too long held captive in committee."

But then it was back again to complaints -- about another flood control project, the failure to approve congressional term limits, cutting federal funds for public radio and television, federal bureaucrats, foreign aid, ugly highway sound barriers, taxation of unemployment benefits, affirmative action, gun control, terrorists.

After the meeting was over, a constituent came up to Frelinghuysen, told him he was pleased with the first 100 days and urged him to "keep up the good work."

But judging from those who spoke out at the Bloomingdale firehouse town meeting, they obviously think there's still plenty wrong in Washington, no matter who's in charge.

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