A gift for you

Dear Tom,

Merry Christmas!  In our family, we celebrate not just Christmas Day but the twelve days of Christmas—keeping our house decorated and continuing to feast until Jan. 5.  Because our Christian faith is central to our lives, we want to celebrate Christmas, not as the one-day culmination of a season of shopping and partying, but as a season for reflection on the outrageous fact that the divine entered human history.

Since it’s still Christmas at our house, I have a Christmas gift for you, Tom.  Here’s my gift: I just requested the board of elections to send me a new voting application so that I can change my party registration.  I don’t remember what I indicated when I first registered to vote in New York fourteen years ago.  I probably said that I was independent if I was required to say anything at all.   But I’ve recently decided that I am going to register as a Republican.  Merry Christmas!

My friends and family will be surprised by this.  I’ve never voted Republican and when I fill out those online quizzes that test which candidate best fits my beliefs and which party’s platform most aligns with what I care about, the results seldom if ever show that I should support a GOP candidate.

But here’s the deal.  Our electoral system is messed up.  If I think about my ideal political candidate for national office, it would be a moderate person from either party who is willing to get things done by working across the aisle.  But our system has devolved in recent years so that there aren’t any moderates left.

For example, if you Tom were to move to the center on any of a variety of issues (say if you started using the language of reforming the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it or if you admitted that your rural district with a declining population could benefit from immigration), you might find yourself facing a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate.  Someone might emerge saying that you weren’t conservative enough, and you might be defeated.

Why wouldn’t people like me, who want more centrist candidates vote to keep you in?  Why are there no centrists left in congress?  Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, quit in 2013 because she was so frustrated that there was no one left in the center.  One reason we don’t have moderates in congress (from either party) is that moderate voters don’t often vote in the primaries.  I’ve never voted in a political primary myself.

So this is your gift.  I’m going to register as a Republican and tell all my friends to do so too.  For people living in the 23rd district who read my blog, I recommend that we all register as Republicans.  Why not register as Democrats if that’s the party that we prefer?  Frankly, because our district is not likely to elect a Democrat.  I know we came a little close for your comfort this fall, Tom, but you still won with a fairly safe margin.  The people of this district generally prefer Republicans.  My best bet for getting a centrist candidate as my representative in Washington is to get a centrist Republican.  And I’m okay with that.

If you move to the center, Tom, I and as many of my friends as I can convince to join me, will vote for you in the primary.  Or, if you don’t move to the center, we will vote for the most moderate candidate who runs.  I know that it feels safer to stay on the right.  But is that what you really want?

Earlier this year you supported the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency and does things like fund boat inspections to control invasive species.  Someone who was very conservative might oppose that kind of thing as promoting more environmental regulation.  You, however, said in your May 2 press release that “The boat inspection program has produced positive results and encouraged the control of hydrilla in the Finger Lakes in particular. We are glad we can further these efforts and help protect our lakes.”  That sounds pretty moderate, Tom.

I wonder if you wouldn’t mind becoming more of a moderate.  Do you admire Amo Houghton, who served this district for 18 years?  He was a moderate.

If you do move to the center, I’m ready to go to the polls as a newly registered Republican and do what I can to ensure that you stay in office.  Do we have a deal?

I suspect that you’re taking some time off for the holidays since the only new press release on your website is about a plan announced last June.  Everyone needs a bit of vacation so I don’t begrudge you that.  I wish that you had more time to answer your mail, however.  It’s now been seven weeks and I still haven’t heard from you.  I’ll be expecting a reply as soon as your office gets working again in the New Year.

Talk to you soon,


Are you ghosting me?

Dear Tom,

It’s been two weeks since I last wrote.  When I started this blog, I committed to writing to you regularly but didn’t promise myself that I would do so weekly.  Last week was finals week at the college where I teach and I had a huge pile of grading to get through.  But now that I’m almost finished with my grading, I can return to the important work of political engagement.

I had planned to write to you this week about the Genesee River watershed and the role of the federal government in helping to clean up unsafe waters, but I see that you’ve just published a press release about your plan for higher education reform.  As someone who works in higher ed, I think I’d better comment on that instead.  I’ll come back to my thoughts on water in another letter.

In the letter introducing your plan, “Our Vision for Students,”  you say that “The average cost of attending a private four-year college is quickly approaching $50,000 per year.”  You don’t cite any source for this information, and I can’t find any source that would confirm it.  However you arrived at that number, I’m wondering if you factored in the “discount rate” of colleges.  Private colleges and universities publish a “sticker price” for tuition and then deeply discount that tuition for most students (many schools have an average discount of over 50%) by offering scholarships “paid for” by the institution.

Parents and students want to be able to say that they are choosing a school with a high price but then they also want to feel that they were valued because they received scholarships.  So colleges and universities inflate their published price and offer scholarships to get closer to what families can actually afford.  When we use the “sticker price” number to talk about the price of college (a common trend in journalism on this topic), this gives an inaccurate view of the true price of college.

Since your plan is directed at “private four-year colleges” I want talk specifically about the economic climate for the private four-year colleges in your district.  You also have an Ivy League research university–Cornell–in your district, but its economic situation (with its 6 billion dollar endowment) is so different from that of the others that I’ll leave Cornell aside.

In sum, the small private colleges in your district are in financial trouble.  Western New York state is blessed with a large number of private colleges scattered throughout its hills and valleys.  The rural counties that are home to these colleges also have a declining population and high poverty rates.  These colleges are major employers in these counties yet they are dependent on their ability to attract students from other regions and even other states.  In the past, this has worked well—western New York’s colleges are excellent and have long attracted students from outside.  These colleges then supported local economies by creating jobs—both at the lower end of the pay scale with support services and at the higher end with instructors and administrators.  But after the financial crisis of 2008, fewer students are traveling to our region to attend college even as our local populations continue to decline.  The small colleges in my region are operating with budget deficits and are desperately trying to cut enough expenses to survive without compromising what they can offer students.

You are correct that the price of college is rising and you may be correct that at some large and wealthy institutions, there is waste of resources.  I have not observed that at the small local colleges with which I’m intimately familiar.  We’ve been cutting everything we can that doesn’t directly impact the student experience–and some things that do. Our salaries are lower than the national averages for peer institutions.  We’ve lost programs and had to dismiss colleagues.  Why are costs still rising?

Tom, the biggest factor for small private colleges in rising costs is actually health care.  Because our American system of health care is structured around employers paying health insurance, as health insurance costs rise, that burden gets passed on to employers.  A college is a personnel-rich environment.  We employ a lot of people and to reduce costs in our product (education) mostly means reducing the number of people helping deliver that product:  teachers and support staff.  We can’t do much of that before we reduce the quality of our work.  So my suggestion is that if you’d like to reduce the price of college, you should actually work on health-care reform.  Take what is working in the Affordable Care Act and continue to refine it and make it better—continuing to look for ways to reduce costs.

Your ideas about increasing federal financial aid through Perkins loans and Pell grants are great ones.  If colleges like mine did not have to discount our tuition so deeply because students were bringing in more financial aid, that would be a big boost to us.  Thanks for advocating for those plans.

Be cautious, however, about criticizing the small colleges in the poor rural counties in your district using the same criteria you would use to criticize Cornell.  We are in the same marketplace, competing for the same students, but our financial positions are very, very different.  And if any of the small colleges in my region goes under (not an outrageous prediction given our precarious financial situation), that will be terrible for the local economy of the town and county where that college stood.  I know you don’t want this.

As someone concerned with excess government regulation, you will probably also be concerned about the ways in which reform plans for higher education often create extra regulatory burdens.  For example, the Textbook Information Provision  of the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA) mandated that colleges tell students before they register for classes what their textbooks will cost. This has meant hours of extra work for campus stores,helping faculty make their textbook selections extra early (often before faculty have really had time to plan what they are going to teach).  These extra hours of pay go into the college budget.  And at small colleges, students don’t typically choose between sections of courses anyway.  There is only one section of Genetics or Shakespeare per semester.  Comparison shopping for courses with the cheapest textbooks isn’t something that actually helps students at small colleges.  And perversely, faculty who are rushed to choose textbooks for an early deadline may choose more expensive options because they don’t have the time to research better choices.

One more example about how well-meant regulations have raised costs for small colleges.  My institution has recently had to add a position simply to make sure that we are compliant with Title IX regulations.  Without this person, we might face serious sanctions.  I know that you understand the burden of excess regulations so I wanted you to be aware about how these can easily creep into higher-education reforms.  Please be cautious.

I’ve still got a few papers left to grade and I’m looking forward to attending Christmas concerts at my children’s school this week.  I’ve put the kids to work baking bread and cookies to give away to teachers and we’ve been enjoying having some snow on the ground.  Perhaps this is the week when we’ll pull out the cross-country skis for the first time this year and head out into our lovely local woods.

Still haven’t heard from you, Tom.  I’m waiting anxiously.  (It’s been six weeks!)  To use an expression popular with my students, are you ghosting me?

Talk to you later,


A little woozy

Dear Tom,

I’m feeling a little woozy after a twenty-four-hour stomach bug had me in bed all day Saturday, but it looks like it’s been an exciting week for you and I decided I ought to write.  Congratulations are in order again on your appointment as a Vice Chair to President-elect Trump’s transition team.  He seems like a man who really rewards loyalty.  You showed him unwavering support during his election campaign; I can see why he would want someone like you on his team.

I don’t know yet what particular assignments he’ll give to each of the 28 or so people who were named “Vice Chairs” (I’ve been trying to find a full list but information has been spotty), but I see you’re in pretty famous company among people like Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Peter Thiel, and the President-elect’s children and son-in-law.

I hope you’ll post a press release or an editorial on your website to give your constituents an idea of what you’ll be doing in this role.  So far, my impression of the transition has been that it’s been a little rough.  I’m particularly worried about the President-elect’s phone calls with world leaders.  I’ve heard that both Taiwan and Pakistan are interpreting his messages as implying a sharp shift in foreign policy toward big players in the international scene (China and India, respectively).  I understand that a new president might take foreign policy in a new direction, but I hope he does so cautiously and in consultation with experts.

I also wanted to comment on your support for the “Midnight Rule Relief Act of 2016” –legislation that passed the House in November but seems certain to be vetoed by President Obama if it makes it through the Senate.  Tom, I must say that from this constituent’s point of view, this looks like legislative theater.  If I’ve understood it rightly, the proposed law would prevent an administration from enacting regulations during the lame-duck period of a presidential term.  Support for such an act sounds good in a press release; you get to say you are “fighting government regulation.”  But because this act doesn’t really have a chance of becoming law it doesn’t seem like a good use of your time.  I am more than a little weary of Congress not really working on positive legislation but instead on plans to stymie the other party—fruitless plans, even, like this one that simply signal a desire to stymie the other party.   I would so much rather see you putting your time and energy into finding common ground with Democrats, not just trying to block them.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I think both parties are to blame for this state of affairs.  If your opponent had been elected, I expect I would be urging him to work with the Republicans rather than trying to get in their way.

One of my purposes in writing these letters is to try to find the common ground myself.  I’m working to identify policy ideas that I think I and my neighbors could agree on.  It’s hard when I see Congress so divided and representatives of both parties acting in ways that are designed simply to frustrate the other party.  I’ll have more to say about solutions to this problem in my next letter.

By the way, this is my fourth letter to you and I still have yet to receive more than an auto-reply.  I would really like to attend one of your town-hall meetings next Saturday so I could meet you in person but all of them are an hour and a half drive from where I live.  I don’t have room in my day to make it.  I hope that you’ll hold one closer to my end of the district sometime soon.

Waiting eagerly to hear back from you,