Upstream

Dear Tom,

If you walk or drive about a half a mile east from my house, you cross a concrete bridge over a wide, shallow river. It’s unspectacular. When it’s dry, it becomes wide swathes of rocks with just a narrow channel. When we’ve had lots of rain, it’s a muddy, churning flow. A few years ago, in late winter, after it had frozen and then partially thawed and started to break apart, it froze again, leaving jagged chunks of ice poking upward. That was cool.

My favorite times to cross the river are on early morning runs when there’s mist rising and I can glimpse the pink sunrise. A couple of times I’ve seen bald eagles coasting high between its banks.

It’s the Genesee. One of just a few North American rivers that flow northward. It has a couple of really spectacular spots where it pushes through a gorge and descends over a waterfall. But not very near my town. Here it’s just a river where, on the hottest days in summer, people park their cars on the loose rocks and wade in to cool off.

It’s also a Superfund site. The Superfund program was begun by congress in 1980 when they passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).[1] According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website (as of this morning), the program is “responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.”[2]

The river a half mile from my house is not especially clean. It’s possible to fish in the Genesee, but I’ve been told that you shouldn’t eat what you catch. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation classifies the section near my house as Class C: “suitable for general recreation use and support of aquatic life, but not as a water supply or for public bathing.”[3] On the other hand, the data supporting this classification is really old. The water hasn’t been officially assessed since 1999. The river might be cleaner now than it used to be. Or not.

The Superfund site on the Genesee is upriver from where I live—about 30 miles south, just upstream from the village of Wellsville. It’s where the Sinclair Refining Company (formed in 1901) was generating waste like “tank sludges from a solvent plant, sludges from an oil separator, acids, pesticides, waste oil and heavy metals.”[4] These were put into a landfill near the river but due to erosion leaked into the river itself.

This became a Superfund site in 1983 and the EPA has been working ever since on cleaning it up—enacting various measures to keep contaminants out of the river. They’ve made progress and, as of a 2012 report, “all systems were operating as designed and are protective of human health and the environment.”[5]

How do I know all this? There is an excellent website run by the EPA that details exactly what they’ve been doing.

I wanted to point this out to you because, for me, it demonstrates two things key to our democracy:

1) Environmental regulation is sometimes very important, especially for businesses (like the Sinclair Refining Company, later ARCO) that manufacture “heavy oils and grease for lubrication applications, light oil for fuel, naphtha, gasoline, aniline, lighter fluid and paraffin.” The problems with their landfill originated in a less-regulated era. I would rather not return to a time when fewer regulations are in place, putting my watershed and my family’s and neighbors’ health in danger.
2) Citizens need to be able to find out exactly what their government is up to. The EPA website is helpfully organized and contains both overall summaries and detailed information. I thought I was going to have to do a lot of digging to find out about our local Superfund site, but it was all there, easy to find, on the website.

I’d like you to be a champion for these two things. First, regulations that keep businesses from doing harm to their neighbors. Putting their waste into a landfill near the river was in the best interest of Sinclair Refining Company/ARCO, but it wasn’t in the best interest of the people who live near the Genesee. That’s why regulation matters. Second, I’d like you to champion transparent communication of government information so that citizens can know what their government is doing. There are, as you know, some signs that the Trump administration wants to control what information government agencies (especially ones associated with environmental concerns) share with the public. Could you please tell President Trump that citizens need access to as much information as possible in this area?

I don’t know if my messages have been getting through to you or not, since you haven’t written back. So I’ve decided to take my political action to the next level. I’m committing, for the month of February (it’s a short month), to call your office every weekday and talk to someone in person.

Don’t worry; I plan to emphasize ideas that I think you, as a conservative, should support:

1) Not allocating taxpayer money for a border wall. Have you seen the estimates of how much this is going to cost? As a fiscal conservative, I know that you don’t want to fund expensive projects that add to the national debt.
2) Coming up with a plan for health care so that when you repeal the ACA, there’s something to take its place. I know that you want to make sure that health care for Americans is better, not worse, than what we had before. Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House. This is your moment; use it well.
3) Helping America maintain (or return to) its identity as the most welcoming place for immigrants in the world—a place that declares to anyone who values hard work, freedom, and entrepreneurship that this is the place for them. When people flee from conflicts instigated by extremists, they can come to the US to experience what is great about America.

I’m looking forward to lots of friendly conversations with folks in your office in the next month.

Your devoted constituent,

Susan

[1] https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-cercla-overview
[2] https://www.epa.gov/superfund
[3] http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/water_pdf/wigeneseecold.pdf
[4] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/dsp_ssppSiteData1.cfm?id=0202093#Why
[5] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/dsp_ssppSiteData1.cfm?id=0202093#Status

I’ve got an assignment for you

Dear Tom,

It’s an unseasonably warm January Sunday and I’m finally getting back to my project of writing to you after taking care of all sorts of typical, beginning-of-semester tasks and delivering a lecture at the college where I teach on writers from rural, working-class backgrounds.

I picked up the newspaper on the side porch this morning to see a story about President Trump’s plan for a month of executive actions to dismantle the work of President Obama and I thought, “I’d better write to Tom; I’ve got to give him an assignment.”

Your assignment, Tom, and the assignment of everyone who has been elected or hired to serve or work for our government, is to keep things stable and functional in a time of disorder.  President Trump was elected in part on a platform of disruption—to dismantle many of the structures of our government and to replace them with something else.  A lot of people around the country believed that this was an important and necessary thing to do.

So now it’s like our country is doing a massive home renovation project—we’re gutting the walls, ripping out the electric, replacing the appliances—all while we are still trying to live in the house.  Friday’s executive action gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services permission to “exercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay” parts of the Affordable Care Act.  The part of the law to which this seems directed is the “individual mandate” requiring everyone to get insurance.  If that part of the law is no longer enforced, and young healthy people stop buying insurance, insurance companies will no longer get income from them, and will have to figure out some other way of remaining profitable.  In the past, they’ve done this by denying covering to people with pre-existing conditions or in other ways limiting the services that they pay for.  Our new President and members of congress like you say that there are plans to replace the law with a new and better one that will solve these problems.  Now that executive orders are being issued, you’ve got to act fast to get those new plans in place.

We’re living in this house while it’s under construction.  How are you going to make sure that our government does not devolve into chaos as the new president dismantles structures that—while sometimes problematic—are the very structures presently making things work?

I’m nervous, Tom.   Times of disruption are times when really bad things can happen.

But then I remember that I’ve got you.  You were elected by a solid majority of constituents in our district and you’re heading off to work every day to keep the government functioning.  You, unlike our new president, have experience in government.  You know how our laws work and how to get things done.  You and your colleagues are my best hope right now.  I didn’t vote for a president who wanted to disrupt the status quo.  But that’s what I’ve got.  I accept that Donald Trump is my president.  But you are also my representative to congress.

Will you promise to try, to the best of your ability, to keep chaos to a minimum during this reconstruction project?  Will you make sure that we’re not breathing in the dust from demolition; will you vacuum up the shards of glass before we step in them?  Can you make sure that the laundry gets done and dinner gets put on the table even as the appliances are put on the curb?  Can you make sure that the contractors are doing everything up to code?

Thanks, Tom.  I’m depending on you.

Write me soon.

Susan

In the swamp

Dear Tom,

It’s been a busy week for you as Congress got back into session; things are getting busy in my household too as I prepare for a new semester of teaching.

Tuesday was a really exciting day as I woke up to the news that House Republicans had proposed an amendment to a rules bill that would have taken away the independence of Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), making it answerable only to the House Committee on Ethics, run by the very people (congressional representatives) it could be investigating. Since this proposal emerged out of a private meeting and the vote on the amendment was going to happen on Tuesday afternoon, I got on the phone right away in the morning and called your Washington office. I spoke to someone there and asked that you not support the amendment. By noon, Republicans responded to some tweets by President-elect Trump and hopefully to calls from constituents like me and reversed course on this idea.

The idea of reforming how the OCE works is not all bad. I can see how letting investigations be prompted by anonymous tips could lead to trouble. I can imagine someone who wanted to take revenge on a political rival instigating a spurious investigation, further bogging down congressional work. But there are surely ways to revise the rules for this office without taking away its independence. Thanks for listening and for making the right call.

I’ve been trying to be a good citizen this week and keep track of what Congress has been up to, but the more I looked, the less clear it became. I was excited to see, on your Facebook page, that you had given a 23-minute interview on CSPAN’s Washington Journal about the “Republican agenda.” Here’s a link to the interview for those who read my blog. I sat down this morning with a cup of coffee to watch that interview and learn more about what you and your colleagues hope to do.

Sigh. In 23 minutes, you said only one specific thing—that you like the idea of “border adjustability” in the tax law of imports and exports. After the show, I looked up the term and read about the pros and cons of this idea (if I’ve understood it rightly, it means exempting exports from taxes while taxing imports). That sounds like something that would help American manufacturers while it would be very unpopular with big-box chain retailers like Walmart and Target whose business model relies on cheap imported goods. I appreciate your introducing me to the term so that I can follow discussions of this issue.

In the rest of the interview, though, any time you were asked to say something specific, you reverted to broad, vague talking points. I was grudgingly impressed with your ability to do this. It can’t be easy to maintain your composure and keep veering away from saying anything specific.

You were asked about your role as a “vice-chair” of President-Elect Trump’s transition team and you gave a vague answer about the “process going well” and “hitting the ground running”; you were asked about repealing the Affordable Care Act and what the Republicans had in mind to replace it and you gave a vague answer about “a lot of debate; a  lot of leaders” and having “open and honest debate.” You were asked about the CIA’s insistence that Russia sought to influence the last election and you gave a vague answer about the appropriateness of President-Elect Trump questioning the work of our intelligence service.

I was disappointed with the host, Bill Scanlon, for not pushing you harder. He asked you to give specifics a couple of times, but didn’t press you to actually do so. I can guess why you don’t want to get specific. Anything you say could be quoted back to you as something you promised to do. And we are not very forgiving, in election campaigns, about people who change their minds. Talking specifics means that you’ll be held accountable for your ideas. Staying vague is safe.

So I feel a little stymied as an engaged citizen this week. I can watch a 23-minute interview with my congressional representative about what he did this week and learn almost nothing that I did not already know about what my government is doing or planning to do. Most crucially, I still don’t know even in a broad way what’s going to happen to the health-insurance system that many Americans now use other than that it’s going to “repealed.”

I sent you my first post-election letter on Nov. 13. It’s been 56 days and I’ve written to you six times (not counting today). I haven’t heard from you yet. I had a such a nice interaction with your office staffer on Tuesday, perhaps I’ll start calling more often. At least I’ll know that I’ve gotten through.

Talk to you soon I hope,

Susan