At the Rotary Club lunch the other day, insurance agent John E. Clark Jr., 44, rose to talk back to the woman who was once his eighth-grade social studies teacher. "The U.S. Congress has no guts whatsoever," he told Marge Roukema (R.-N.J.) who is now his representative from New Jersey's 5th Congressional District.
The federal government's budget deficit was on Clark's mind, as it was on the minds of his fellow Rotarians. "You seem to be so afraid of special interests," he said of Congress. "What will old people think, so you can't consider obvious reforms in Medicare. What will the military industrial interests think, so you can't do anything about defense spending . . . . Why is it you can't seem to meet some of these issues head-on and bite the bullet?"
These are prosperous times in suburban Bergen County, just across the Hudson River from New York City, but beneath the placid surface lies a sense of helplessness about the nation's fiscal state and considerable anger towards Washington.
As a third-term Republican, with little influence on budget deliberations, Roukema didn't offer any solutions on a swing through her district last week, but joined in the general hand-wringing.
"There was a mandate in the 1984 election to reduce spending, but we haven't been able to do it," she told the group of about 60 Rotarians. "After seven months of hard work day and night, many of us feel we've seen the mandate squandered."
Roukema, a moderate Republican who describes herself most often as a fiscal conservative, confessed to the group, "I voted against the budget resolution kind of in a snit. I was annoyed . . . . I don't know whether that was responsible . . . . There was the promise of $56 billion in reductions but everybody knew we wouldn't come anywhere near that if we were looking at real numbers."
New Jersey is a high-tax state, and one of its Democratic senators, Bill Bradley, is a chief sponsor of tax reform legislation. Its governor, Thomas H. Kean, was the first GOP governor to speak against elimination of state and local tax deductions. But tax reform is barely an issue here.
At public meetings, "About the only questions I get are on the deficit," Roukema said. "There was a flurry of interest in tax reform during the election, but I don't see much interest in it now. Once you get beyond the general concept of closing loopholes, the consensus falls apart. People view it with great skepticism."
Anthony Richard, a real estate investor, rose at the luncheon and told Roukema, "I am thinking of sending back a copy of President Reagan's picture. It was sent to me a few months ago. But the country has been deluding itself. The most important thing we can do is attack the deficit . . . . It's time to say the emperor has no clothes."
After lunch, as Roukema shook hands around a public swimming pool in nearby Waldwick, Thomas Craig, on vacation from his job as sales manager for a coffee company, sat in his bathing trunks reading "Murder at the Met." Looking up for a minute at the business-like woman dressed in a red linen frock, he said, "When are you going to do something about that deficit?"