U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., faced a largely friendly audience during a town hall session at the Medford library Tuesday, but the loudest applause he received came when he mentioned the possibility of withholding congressional paychecks.
"We have extended the debt ceiling until May," he said. "With the condition that the Congress, each house, pass a budget. If we don't, the house that doesn't pass a budget, no pay."
At that point, the roughly 200 in attendance erupted in applause, reflecting the frustration felt by local constituents.
The national debt and its potential consequences were among the issues Walden of Hood River, discussed during the session. It was scheduled for an hour but ran for nearly 90 minutes. Everything from assault weapons to taxes were discussed.
Walden, 55, who has represented the 2nd Congressional District for 14 years, is the chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, making him the fifth-most powerful person in the House. As the committee chairman, he will work closely with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other party leaders to set the agenda in the House, where the GOP is the majority.
"I don't have to tell you we are facing some really difficult choices in the nation's capitol and in our country," he told the crowd.
The problems facing the nation are shared by all, whether conservative or liberal, Democrat, Republican or independent, he noted.
"When you look at the deficit and what it has done, regardless of who you attribute its creation to, it is there and it is getting worse," he continued.
When he was a small business owner, Walden said, he could decide how to avoid or reduce debt.
"Unlike being a small business owner, I don't get to just decide," he said. "You try to influence others. You try to bring people together."
Walden noted that he has supported a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution since he was elected to Congress 14 years ago.
"If we had a balanced-budget amendment to the Constitution, as we do in many states, including Oregon, I think it would be an appropriate governor, an appropriate slowing down, an appropriate recognition that we've got to make these decisions," he said.
Noting that he believes spending is the problem, he said that passing a budget is crucial.
"But the Senate hasn't passed a budget in three-and-a-half years," he said. "The House has passed one in each of the last two years. You can like it or dislike it — believe me, we had strongly held opinions on both sides — but at least we had a document."
He observed the nation is facing deadlines that will force it to act. The resolution that is funding the federal government in the interim ends on March 27. And each house of Congress is expected to pass a budget on April 15.
"In the next couple of months, there is going to be an enormous debate in Washington as well as across the country about what direction the country should go and how we should tackle the budget," he said.
When he opened the session up for questions, one woman asked him why Congress didn't simply take away the pay. She expressed concern that members would simply get a loan for what they can expect to be paid.
Walden indicated he was all for that, but the 27th Amendment to the Constitution prevents such a move, he said.
"All we could figure out how to do constitutionally was withhold the pay — you can do that," he said.
"It had a really nice shame factor," he added.
One patron chided Walden for voting to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act of 1939. The federal law prohibited banks from acting as dealers or underwriters in any securities other than general obligation municipal bonds.
"Then you voted to bail them out with the TARP bill in 2008," the patron said. "What I'm asking you is: Are you working for Wall Street or are you working for the people?"
Insisting that slashing huge amounts of money from the budget would not work, he urged Walden to work to restore the 1939 act.
"You have to get rid of the elephant in the room, and that's the toxic bank assets whose liability has been transferred to the American taxpayer," he said.
But Walden countered that an independent analysis by factcheck.org disagreed with the assertion that the repeal of the 1939 act had a substantial impact on the economic meltdown.
He blamed the subsequent Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act for contributing to the current financial woes.
Another member of the audience felt the Federal Reserve is the problem.
"I've supported for a number of years auditing the Federal Reserve," Walden responded.
The solution, insisted one woman, is for Congress to close its doors and the public purse for a month, creating a government shutdown.
"Washington is not afraid of we the people," she said. "They need to be afraid of us."
If such a shutdown were to occur, the spouses of the soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan would not receive a check, Walden said.
"There are consequences to actions we need to understand," he said, noting a similar action was taken in 1995. "That's the nuclear option. It is not without ramifications."
A sensible solution would be first to agree on a budget and work forward from there, he said.
Several people brought up the issue of the 2nd Amendment right to keep and bear arms and recent calls for tighter gun control laws after the Sandy Hook shootings.
One man, who noted he was a hunter, said he had little use for an assault rifle with a 100-round clip.
"As long as there is no clause to take away guns and no clause to impose penalties to those who have them," he said.
However, two others spoke out against any ban on assault weapons, noting the 2nd Amendment does not refer to hunting.
Another person objected to the current push to legalize immigration for undocumented residents.
Still others expressed concern about Obamacare, Social Security and other issues.
"Understand the mechanics and the limitations of what we can and cannot get done," Walden told the crowd. "When you've got three entities and two of them have a different view than the third, it is a little hard if you are the third to control the first two. You are outnumbered every day of the week."
But he vowed to continue working on solutions he supported.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at email@example.com.