If there was any question whether a congressman's constituents are engaged on the incendiary issue of debt reduction in Washington, the answer came Monday in Room U102 at Southeast Community College.
An overflow crowd of more than 200 people showed up near the dinner hour to question and engage Rep. Jeff Fortenberry about the size of government, spending reductions and the role revenue should play in eliminating budget deficits and reducing the national debt.
Fortenberry heard some tea party language and what sounded like some tea party backlash.
In answer to one question, the 1st District Republican congressman revealed he informed Grover Norquist and his anti-tax organization he no longer is committed to that organization's pledge to oppose any form of tax increases.
"I did sign that pledge when I was first running" for the House in 2004, Fortenberry said. "I no longer sign any pledges."
A pledge "restrains your ability to think creatively," he said, noting Norquist attempts to interpret and define what is considered a tax increase.
"I informed the organization I don't consider (the earlier pledge) binding," Fortenberry said. "I don't care to be associated with it. It's too constraining."
Fortenberry said he remains committed to reducing federal spending, but suggested an openness to tax reform.
"We have a broken tax code that is skewed to the wealthy and corporations (who) know how to move capital around," he said.
Tax reform could close loopholes and perhaps lower tax rates, Fortenberry said, and the result might be more revenue.
Runaway federal spending, trillion dollar budget deficits and a $14 trillion national debt that continues to grow all undermine the ability of the economy to prosper and expand, he said.
"Blame for this spans the political spectrum," Fortenberry said.
"We need to stop this overspending," he said. "We need to start turning this battleship in the right direction. And we all have to share in the sacrifice."
Fortenberry said he believes the long-term solution to the nation's fiscal challenges is an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that requires enactment of a balanced federal budget every year.
"If it comes out of Congress," he said, "I think it has traction in America."
Confronted by one questioner who said he's "the biggest spender" in Nebraska's congressional delegation, Fortenberry said he's ready to "put my budgeting credentials on the table."
Fortenberry said he voted no on "the major structural issues," including the Wall Street bailout bill, the health care reform law and the economic stimulus package.
"It is my belief there is too much concentration of power and spending in Washington," Fortenberry said. "We need to reinstate the idea of federalism."