Holly Boudreau speaks to U.S. Rep. Neal about her application to the U.S. Air Force Academy.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It's not often teens have a chance to quiz their congressman.
So the students in Stephanie Kopola's college-level world history class spent some time developing the questions they wanted to pose to U.S. Rep. Richard Neal on Tuesday.
"They generated questions based on what interested them," Kopola said. "Then they voted on the ones that really encompassed what they were interested in."
Many of the questions, not surprisingly, dealt with current events and topics that could affect their futures: border security, college debt, educational support for low-income areas, LGBT protections and equity, gun violence and the shutdown.
Neal said the federal government supplies about 7 percent of the revenue for public education and noted the economic changes that have hit particularly central and Western Massachusetts. Where years before someone without a high school diploma could get a good job in manufacturing, the industry has changed dramatically.
The arts have become an important economic driver but "the arts community does not replace the old manufacturing jobs in terms of income," he said. "The arts are subject to the vagaries of economics."
Neal said it has to be a mix of arts and manufacturing and other fields. He posed the idea of creating opportunity zones in low-income areas to encourage business development and to make compromises to encourage energy development. He noted that the employment rate has dipped again and that some 18,000 precision manufacturing jobs are still unfilled.
"The skill set you come out of here with is going to ensure you have a place in the new economy," he told the students, adding that they didn't have to go to college but the unemployment rate for college graduates is 3 percent. "Have a dream but have a plan."
As for the shutdown and immigration, the congressman says he's been clear where he stands.
"I don't think it's in our interest to build a wall. The idea should be to reopen government and negotiate," Neal said. "We're only disputing one appropriations bill, despite what you read. We've already voted for the other appropriations bills those were done. An agreement was reached in December on how to forward."
The wall's become a metaphor for the two sides, he said. The Democrats are offering more money for technology, more money for border security and more money for judges to try the cases. "Our argument, I think, is sound: Let's open government and negotiate."
Rather than a wall, the government should be working on immigration reform and construct a path for people to come to the United States — a mainstream position that Neal said both Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama could have agreed to.
The major problem is the number of people who are arriving legally and then overstaying their visas, he said. They make their way into the underground economy but at the same time contribute some $8 billion a year into the Social Security trust fund that they can never collect.
Neal, a former history teacher, first gave the students a rundown on the 1st Massachusetts congressional district that he represents and the basics of how the U.S. government operates.
He currently chairs Ways & Means, the oldest standing committee in the Congress from which all spending bills must originate. It also oversees taxes, Medicare, Social Security, welfare, trade tariffs, management of public debt and the tax portion of Medicaid.
His sprawling district had expanded after the last U.S. Census in response to a decline in population but the Springfield Democrat was confident that Massachusetts will keep its nine-member congressional delegation after the 2020 Census.
"The idea that the framers had in mind ... the idea of the House of Representatives was to construct an institution that would be reflective of popular will, of opinion, hence the construction of the two-year term in the House of Representatives," he said. "We do more in line with constituent services but we also are more reflective of opinion at any given time."
Opinions are pretty fluid, though, Neal continued, pointing out how he had spoken out and voted against the war in Iraq 17 years ago and got critical calls and letters. Now, opinion has shifted greatly.
"They decided wisely to construct a second chamber of Congress: The United States Senate," Neal said of the framers. "They would give senators a little more room for deliberation because of the six-year term.
"The House would absorb that opinion, and react to it on any given day, the Senate, only a third stand for election every two years and that would be the check on popular will."
He also pointed out that you don't have to be elected to become president, vice president or senator; but you do have to be elected to be a member of the House. Since 1792, only 12,000 men and women have served in the House out of a country that now numbers 330 million.
Having just won a war against a monarchy, the framers were very concerned about creating a too-powerful executive branch, instead instituting checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial.
That doesn't mean everyone gets along, he said. "We have a long history of nasty elections, all the way back to the first ones."
"They had this argument at the beginning of our founding that we have today: the size, reach and role of the federal government," Neal said, adding it's an argument that's swung back and forth and continues to this day.
"There are some of us who are interested in what we call 'activist government' because we think there are things the government can do to ameliorate some of the challenges that capitalism isn't able to address," he said. "There are others who simply say, get the government out of the way and we will have more profound far-reaching economic growth."
The congressman had earlier had lunch with Mayor Thomas Bernard to discuss issues pertinent to the city and spoke with state Rep. John Barrett III, and their predecessors Richard Alcombright and Daniel Bosley.
He also visited the music and performing arts departments, and stopped to speak with students in an art classroom, where one teen, Robert Monsees, got the congressman to pose with him and then asked who he was.
Neal said he enjoyed speaking with the students. "They were great," he said.
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