President Clinton's budget director, Leon Panetta, came to Pikesville last night to talk up his boss' plans for raising taxes and cutting spending.
He left with his ears ringing with suggestions from taxpayers who want the administration and Congress to do even more to stop the flow of red ink.
"You and Clinton talk about our children's future," said Albert Harris, 57, of Towson. "How does going another trillion dollars into debt help us?"
Mr. Panetta acknowledged that the total federal debt will continue to grow under Mr. Clinton's proposals. But at least the increase would be slowed by $500 billion over the next five years, he said.
The budget chief turned back to Mr. Harris and asked, "Are you suggesting we take $1 trillion out all at once?"
Replied Mr. Harris: "We ought to start by eliminating the deficit." Asked how, he replied, "It's easy: Stop the spending."
It was that kind of evening at the Pikesville Senior Center, where about 150 people turned out to hear Mr. Panetta -- and to talk back.
The budget director had been invited by Rep. Benjamin Cardin, the Democratic congressman who holds these town meetings periodically around his 3rd District.
Several times, the gathering threatened to turn into a verbal free-for-all, with no shortage of opinions.
Mr. Panetta, himself a former congressman, seemed to take it all in good humor.
"It would do every person in the Cabinet a world of good to get the hell out of Washington every once in a while to talk with people," said Mr. Panetta, noting that he once held similar meetings in his California district.
"The time has come to confront these issues," he said. "There are no easy answers. If there were, it would have been done long ago."
President Clinton was elected to deal with the deficit, and his proposals before Congress are intended to do that with $250 billion in specific spending cuts, and an equal amount in income and gasoline tax increases, and cuts to agricultural, Medicare and other "entitlement" programs, Mr. Panetta said.
More savings will come with the president's health care reform proposals in the fall, he said.
"We have no alternative but to pass this kind of package," he said, noting that interest on the accumulated debt alone soaks up 20 percent of the nation's revenues and already hobbles government's ability to respond to other problems and emergencies such as the Midwest floods.
"If we fail, this economy is headed toward a cliff," the budget director said.
Asked for a promise that the administration would not ask for more tax increases once this package is passed and signed, Mr. Panetta declined.
"The stupidest thing George Bush did was [say], 'Read my lips: No new taxes,' " the budget director said.
Then he turned his interrogator's question into one of his own: "If we get $500 billion in deficit reduction, will you be willing to say we did the right thing?"
Mr. Panetta then was confronted by another citizen who labeled as "unfair" the administration's proposals to increase the percentage of Social Security benefits subject to income taxes.
"What the administration has suggested is for couples making more than $40,000 [in retirement income] to pay taxes on 85 percent of their Social Security income," he said.
He noted that most retirees receive far more from Social Security than they put in during their working lives; the rest comes from current workers' taxes.
The affected retirees simply are being asked to pay income taxes "on what you did not contribute," he said.