Speaking to 16 leaders in Sharp County at Clyde's Chuck Wagon Restaurant, the Democratic Congressman from Gillett urged patience as the federal government adjusts to the downturn in the economy.
"What we need to do now is just cut spending," he said. He said the Department of Interior is one department that can stand cuts.
Berry said the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington pushed economic recovery further out of reach. "There's no question that that changed things," he said. "(But) we already had some serious economic problems before that."
Berry, who is a fiscal and economic conservative, was recently named the member of Congress who votes the least often with his party. He is a member of the Blue Dogs, a group of conservative, mostly southern, Democrats who frequently vote with Republicans. He said he thinks his voting record reflects his constituency.
But Berry didn't miss an opportunity to take a swipe at the opposing party, especially Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott. The Mississippi senator was behind the building of a $500 million helicopter aircraft carrier the U.S. Navy said it didn't need and didn't want, according to Berry.
"Trent Lott said, 'you're going to build it in my district,' and they did," Berry said. "That's genuine pork." But building a four-lane highway across north Arkansas is not pork, he added.
Former Sharp County Judge Frank Arnold asked when Highway 62/412 would be converted to four lanes all the way across north Arkansas. "I think we'll get it done," he said. "We make a little progress every year." He said a couple of hundred-million dollar appropriations would be needed.
The congressman believes he'll be in a better position to steer such appropriations to Arkansas in the next session; he said the House leadership has promised him the next seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee. "Maybe it will make it a little easier to get our share," he said.
Berry also predicted the VA will eventually open a clinic in Sharp County. Former Ash Flat Mayor Ed Martin said 800 people gathered recently in support of opening a clinic here, and he asked, "Why can't we get the VA working through Little Rock instead of Poplar Bluff?" He added that local physicians need more patients, and there is no shortage of patients among area veterans.
"I think we'll get it done; it just takes a little while," Berry said.
Berry expressed his disappointment in the failure of Congress to pass a farm bill last year. "I'm not making any promises this year," he said. There was enough money in the budget last year, but there may not be this year, he said.
He also complained about the national debt on top of an enormous obligation of Social Security to future seniors -- a sum totalling tens of trillions of dollars. "There are absolutely no plans to pay it off," he said. "I think it's wrong to pass that on to our children and grandchildren."Berry praised President Bush for his handling of the Sept. 11 crisis and war on terrorism. He said he knows the president will stay the course and finish the job, even if the American people lose their enthusiasm for the war, and he said he thinks Congress will back the president.
Ash Flat businessman Bill Nix said, "We'd kind of like you to run for president." Referring to Bush, Nix said. "If you'll just listen to him, he's not the smartest man in the world."Berry said technological advances have made it possible to prosecute the war with minimal loss of lives. He said sophisticated screening devices have been developed to improve airport security and reduce the number of security personnel needed. But he also said increased security will cost us personal freedoms.
He expressed concern about profiling. "I think it could get out of control. You could use that to abuse the Constitution and abuse personal freedoms," he said.
Berry also said he has worked to open up markets in Cuba for rice and poultry. He said he is also working to make less expensive prescription drugs from other countries accessible to Americans.