After losing both its president and vice president in recent weeks, the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce flexed its muscles yesterday, hosting a luncheon with Dianne Feinstein at the Canary Hotel. The high-profile get proved that the chamber is still relevant while offering members of the public — for $50 a plate — the chance to share a meal with their senator.
As over 100 attendees, who filled the dining room to capacity, picked over their mixed green salads with roasted tomatoes and vinaigrette dressing, chamber Chair Janet Garufis told them that almost all of the ingredients making up their lunch had been grown locally. Dianne Feinstein — who spoke about the dysfunction of Congress, the state of the economy, and the perils of nuclear waste — reminded the diners that the food was probably planted and harvested by illegal immigrants as “the entire agricultural workforce in this country is virtually undocumented.”
Serving that food was Canary employee Marcos Altamirano who listened intently to Feinstein’s speech but was most interested in her proposal for a “blue card” migrant worker program with a path to citizenship. He especially liked when an audience member suggested that all Congresspersons work on a farm for an hour before considering immigration legislation.
A Democrat, Feinstein painted herself as a moderate in her remarks, beginning by lamenting the widening rift between the two major parties in Congress. When she began her first term, she said, “senators worked together, talked together, ate together.”
Democrats and Republicans better learn how to compromise fast, she said, because, “we come to a cliff at the end of this year,” with the payroll tax cut expiring and the federal unemployment extension ending.
Feinstein defended the federal bailouts of the banking and auto industries but said that to tackle threats to the national deficit long-term, Democrats would have to compromise on entitlement reform and Republicans would have to compromise on taxes. “You have to do both,” she said, indicating that she would be open to gradually raising the age for social security qualification but that Medicare is where the real savings should be found.
She was also not short on specific ideas about revitalizing the economy, promoting the idea of a “patent box” which would offer a significant corporate tax break — from 35 to 15 percent — for businesses that manufactured their U.S. patents domestically. She told a story about travelling to Tokyo when she was the mayor of San Francisco and meeting the head of Sony who told her that America’s power is inextricably tied to its manufacturing base. Continuing on tax reform, Feinstein endorsed the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles Commission recommendation to truncate the six federal income tax brackets to three.
When somebody suggested to her that the country could benefit from “massive” investments in infrastructure, Feinstein agreed and proposed an infrastructure bank to avoid the cost of bonds.
Not all of the audience questions were softballs, however. The Santa Barbara Independent columnist Jerry Roberts asked Feinstein what she thought about President Obama’s campaign attacks on challenger Mitt Romney’s record at the helm of private equity firm, Bain Capital. Feinstein declined to comment specifically but said she thought both candidates would do best by focusing on specific solutions to specific problems.
After one audience member questioned Feinstein’s votes approving “continuing resolutions,” which put off tough decisions on permanently altering the federal budget, the senator stiffened her back, saying that she refused to shut down government which would result in schools closing and elderly not receiving services.
On environmental issues — a topic cherished by the South Coast community — Feinstein warned that we have no verifiably safe nuclear waste facilities and noted that the two plants on the California coast are currently offline due to safety concerns. Her fears about the dangers of nuclear technology go back, she said, to when she was a “small child” witnessing the ramifications of the two atomic bombs that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Though we need renewable energy, we also need to heed the importance of biodiversity, Feinstein said, which is why she has authored a bill to protect the southern part of the Mojave Preserve from enormous solar farms.
She does support solar technology, though.“To be candid with you,” she told her audience at the Canary, “Solyndra [a solar panel manufacturer which went belly-up after receiving a loan guarantee from the federal government for over half a billion dollars] set things back.”