It’s debatable

Dear Tom,

You replied to me again! Someone in your office looked over one of my letters, categorized it according to topic, made a note of what I seemed to be for or against, and then emailed a form letter with your talking points on that issue. I wouldn’t exactly say that I feel “listened to” but I once more feel like your office is getting caught up in its bureaucratic functionality.

In your letter, you tell me that you are an “avid sportsman” who appreciates the “importance of nature.” I had written to thank you for your support of a Republican climate-change resolution and my friend Brian had written to thank you for joining the bi-partisan Climate Solutions Caucus. I’m glad to hear that you affirm the “importance of nature.” And I’m even happier that you have made your public support for working on climate change visible to your constituents and to your colleagues in congress.

You also wrote in your letter that the causes of climate change “are debatable.” If, when you say “debatable,” you mean that the causes of climate change are complex and multi-faceted, I agree.

I’ve been thinking about analogies with other problems whose causes are “debatable” in the sense that there are many contributing factors and it’s challenging to figure out what actions would be best. The first analogy that came to mind was lung cancer among smokers and those near them. Smoking as a cause of cancer was “debated” for a long time. Even though the evidence was clear and consistent, changing our culture to stigmatize and constrain smoking as a threat to public health took decades. And the shift was a painful one because there was so much at stake for a big economic player—the tobacco industry—who lost a lot of market power.

But the public-health effects of smoking are not the best analogy with climate change. The links between tobacco smoke and lung cancer were clearer to see and more personal than the links between burning carbon and climate change. Many people saw relatives die slow painful deaths from lung cancer and could immediately make the connection to the cigarettes these relatives smoked. When I say that my husband’s grandfather died a little young people look surprised and sad. And then I tell them that he was a life-long smoker and died of lung cancer. They nod their heads knowingly. We get it.

A better analogy perhaps is the effects of exercise and diet on health and longevity. We’ve been told that keeping our weight down and getting plenty of exercise will extend our lives. There isn’t really any debate about this. I don’t doubt that if I lost 20 pounds and got 30 minutes of really brisk exercise every day, I would be healthier and would be likelier to live into my eighties or nineties.

But it’s tricky, isn’t it? I could die in a car accident tomorrow. Or, like my mom (who did eat really well and exercise every day), I could die suddenly of colon cancer in my seventies. And what makes a healthy diet, anyway? For years, nutritionists told people to cut back on fatty foods—no butter, cream, juicy pork chops. Now “they” say, “whoops—it’s actually the sugar and the carbs that are the problem. The butter and the pork chop are okay—skip the bread and the baked potato, though.

And what about exercise? How much do I need? Can I get my heart rate up with an intensive work-out a couple of times per week or is it better if I get up out of my office chair and take a brisk walk every day? As you say, “it’s debatable.”

So even though there is public consensus that a healthy diet and exercise lead to longevity, we don’t exactly know what’s going to work. And it’s even trickier to figure out what painful choices I should make to increase my lifespan. How often can I stop at Tim Horton’s? I used to jog several times a week but now my knees hurt and my physical therapist tells me I need to find something else. What will that be?

In terms of climate change, the line charting the rise of carbon in the atmosphere and the line showing global temperature increase (over the past 150 years) are pretty much in sync. This correlation doesn’t prove causation, of course. But I’ve read the work of the climate scientists looking at this data and trying to explain it in lots of different ways before concluding that the connection between humans burning carbon-based fuels, carbon in the atmosphere, and the increase in global temperature is the best explanation for what’s going on. Could they be wrong? It’s possible. Could we be wrong that losing weight and exercising more increase longevity? It’s possible. But in both cases, there’s pretty good evidence for the connection.

But this analogy also works for the solutions. It’s painful and difficult to figure out how to lose weight and exercise more. And it’s painful and difficult to figure out how to reduce the rate at which we’re burning carbon.

In both cases, too, the damage may be done and it’s not clear how much benefit we can gain from addressing the problem now. At what point is it too late for me to make consequential changes in my diet and exercise routine? Will I really gain from doing this? And there’s the immediate pleasure of the chocolate cake right now or the evening spent on the couch watching Netflix. On the climate side, there’s the present good of jobs in extractive and other industries and the enjoyment of the luxuries of modern industrial society. I don’t feel like skipping the cake and going for a walk in the dark on a winter’s evening instead of watching television. It’s painful to take actions that might shut down factories or mines to keep the ocean from rising a few more inches.

But I would argue, in both cases, it’s the right thing to do. Incipient rises in ocean levels are already causing problems in Florida; coastal cities are already having to change their infrastructure to prepare for higher water. The industries of agriculture and forestry are seeing costly shifts. Yes—we’re adapting. But since this is an increasing problem, we don’t know how far it will go.

Yes—this issue is complex and in that sense “debatable.” I don’t think badgering you with the scientific consensus or describing apocalyptic scenarios is helpful. My sense is that people generally shut down and stop listening when the conversation goes in that direction.

But I think we need to have the debate about what we are going to do next. And I think we can probably agree that the carbon equivalent of eating chocolate cake and spending every evening watching Netflix is not going to get us anywhere helpful.

You’ve taken two important steps on this issue, Tom. You’ve joined with fellow Republicans in saying that you care about this issue. And you’ve joined with a bi-partisan group that says that it’s looking for solutions.

Here’s your next step: consider whether you support the “carbon fee and dividend” idea that’s been floating around. You can read about it here. If you don’t support it, identify a better idea and tell us why it’s better.

I’m eager to see you show yourself a leader on this issue.

Now I need to get off my desk chair and get some exercise!

Your devoted constituent,

Susan

While I was away…

Dear Tom,

The last time I wrote to you was mid-March. It’s now late April and I’m finally getting back to our correspondence. In the last month, I spent a week teaching American college students in New Zealand, attended a meeting in Chicago, and went on a family road trip to Louisiana (where my husband’s grandmother lives) for Holy Week. It was a full and exciting month but I’m grateful now to be home and watching spring unfold in western New York.

What have you been up to while I was away?

To answer this question, I used several sources of information. Because I’m particularly interested in what you, my representative, are doing, I went first to your official website. I noticed that you’ve recently done a website redesign (looks good!) but that there is not a lot of information about specific initiatives in which you have been involved. In fact, I noticed that your weekly newsletter seems to have been posting new material on a less-than-monthly basis. There are long gaps between stories: from December to February and between August and November, most notably. Here are the last ten headlines:

  • Reed Attends Presidential Inauguration, February 14, 2017
  • Reed Fights for Students, December 21, 2016
  • Reed Cares for Veterans, November 16, 2016
  • Highlights from Reed’s District Work Period, August 18, 2016
  • Reed Addresses Opioid Epidemic, July 13, 2016
  • Reed Calls for Defeat of Radical Islamic Terrorism, June 14, 2016
  • Reed Fights Opioid Abuse, May 31, 2016
  • Reed Cares for Senior Citizens, May 11, 2016
  • Reed Fights for Affordable Health Care, May 11, 2016
  • Reed Champions American Manufacturing, March 31, 2016

So that was not especially helpful to me. I then went to the congress.gov legislation search page. Information overload! But I used that site’s advanced-search tool to discover a few things.

I narrowed my search successively to the 115th Congress (3938 pieces of enacted or proposed legislation), to bills rather than resolutions (3015), ones that were considered by committees (238), discussed on the floor of one of the chambers (131), passed one chamber (130), passed both chambers (13), and became law (12).

I learned some things.

Although I was not able to search on just the period from March 19 through April 23, I was able to get a good snapshot of what has happened in congress since the beginning of 2017. One takeaway: a lot of legislation gets proposed that goes nowhere. Over 92% of bills (2777) did not even make it to committee. As a constituent, this makes me wary of claims that my representatives have “introduced legislation.”

From now on, Tom, I’m only really going to take an interest in legislation that you’ve brought as far as committee. In some ways this is frustrating—to have to learn to ignore a lot of what you (and politicians in general) say that they are doing. I think a lot of voters don’t realize that “proposing legislation” doesn’t mean much. On the other hand, now when I read alarmist reports that scream at me: “LOOK AT THE TERRIBLE LEGISLATION THAT CONGRESS IS PROPOSING!!” I know to sigh and look away. Nothing to see here, folks.

The other interesting thing I learned is that once a bill makes it past committee and to the floor of congress, it almost inevitably passes at least one chamber. There was only one bill that made it to the floor that didn’t pass one chamber.

To me, this suggests that not a lot of meaningful debate is happening on the floor of congress. The period of committee deliberation has already decided the matter and if it’s not going to pass, it doesn’t get brought to the floor. I can see why this happens. No one wants the embarrassment of losing a floor vote for a bill that he cares about. But this also means that the real legislative work is happening in committee—a place that feels less transparent and accessible to me as a citizen than the floor of the house. But perhaps I’m wrong about this. Apparently I can watch at least some committee hearings on CSPAN.

More work for me, I guess.

My next source of information about what you’re up to, Tom, has been your facebook page.

I’m a “follower” of yours and so your posts automatically get into my feed. The pattern I’ve noticed is that you (or more likely people in your office) post something positive about what you’ve been doing (last Wednesday you were invited by the New York Farm Bureau to stand in a barn talking to some farmers) and then people like me post their reactions. Some of these reactions are very positive (thanking you for your efforts) and some are very negative (blaming you for something or other). I don’t post anything myself, but I often read the comments to see what kinds of things your constituents are saying to you on social media. I have no idea whether these comments are statistically representative of the actual feelings of your constituents. If they are, you’re in trouble. The negative comments certainly outweigh the positive. I suspect, however, that people who are unhappy are more likely to post a comment so you probably have more support than your facebook comments indicate.

My final source of information is the “mainstream media.” I subscribe to The New York Times (digital and Sunday print edition), The Atlantic Monthly (print), National Geographic (print), and Orion (print). I also regularly check in digitally at The Hill (I started doing this when I started this blog) and more occasionally at Nate Silver’s Fivethiryeight blog. I also read things that my friends share via email links or through social media. Posts by the British newspaper The Guardian seem to be coming up a lot lately. I try to avoid reading things that are coming from a really obviously partisan slant (I never click on pieces from Occupy Democrats and very rarely from Huffington Post) but I am open to the critique that I’m in a liberal media bubble. I make an effort to read the more conservative columnists who write for the Times (like Ross Douthat) and almost always click on articles that my conservative friends post on social media if they seem to come from reputable sources. I suspect I should make an even more concerted effort to broad my media consumption.

Oh, and I listen to Public Radio. I’m a big fan of public radio (a shout out to WXXI in Rochester, my station) and the podcasts produced by public radio stations. There is certainly some liberal bias in public radio and television and I’m sometimes frustrated by that. But because I make a direct financial contribution and because they are supported, in small part, through taxpayer money, they also have an incentive to resist their own biases (which they do). I’ve been especially impressed with the evening news show, All Things Considered, for making an extra effort since the election of always including conservative voices.

So with all these sources of information at my disposal, what did I learn about what you’ve been up to?

The short answer is: not a lot.

I know that the bill to replace the Affordable Care Act did not even make it to the floor of congress. I’ve heard that Republicans working on a new plan. I’ve seen the posts about your stops around our district to visit with constituents and interest groups and these give me a vaguely positive feeling that you’re doing your job.

What could I use from you, Tom? I could use more specific information about what exactly you’re doing in the committees on which you sit. Since the real work on congress seems to happen mostly at the committee level, could you make some regular posts about your committee work? Maybe some of your constituents would find this boring. I wouldn’t.

I hope you’ll also tell us exactly where you stand on the latest health-care reform effort. Will you support the plan that’s now in the works like you supported the last one or will you join representatives like Representative Dan Donovan (R-NY) who are worried that the new plan is too risky for vulnerable constituents, especially seniors? I found this interview with Donovan especially helpful.

I’m back on the job in terms of writing to you regularly. I trust you’re on the job too. I think I read something about congress needing to pass a budget this week so the government doesn’t shut down again?

Write me back if you get a chance,

Susan

Looking for a hero

Dear Tom,

Susan is still recovering from jetlag from her travels, so I’m filling in for her this week. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Brian Webb, and I work and live here in Allegany County. We’ve actually met a few times already—here in Houghton (for the inauguration of our solar array in 2015), in Washington D.C., and most recently at the Allen Town hall meeting.

I feel like an “ATTABOY!” is in order. Just two weeks ago Susan thanked you for signing the Republican Climate Resolution and asked if you were ready to go further. Your answer? Last Friday you joined the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus! I’m sure it required political courage to take this step, and I want to acknowledge how proud we are of you right now. Well done!

A friend of mine likes to point out that a thermometer is neither a Democrat nor a Republican. And yet climate change has become so politicized that we can’t seem to be able to look beyond the rhetoric to actually debate solutions. You, Tom, have done that.

You should’ve seen the looks on the faces of our students here when I told them of your latest step toward bipartisan leadership on climate. As you probably know, a group of 10-20 students have been calling your office weekly for the past several months. One of our two main “asks” has been for you to join the caucus. I guess we’ll have to come up with something new.

Which causes me to ask; what next?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m elated that you’ve signed the Republican Climate Resolution and joined the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus. As a Christian, I’m deeply concerned about how climate change is adversely impacting people all over the world—from our neighbors here in the 23rd district to farmers on the other side of the world. But you’re a smart guy, so you know that words alone aren’t going to solve a problem as complex as climate change. What do you think we should do on climate change?

Personally, I’m a big fan of carbon fee and dividend. This proposal would put a steadily-rising fee on fossil fuels, while returning 100% of that revenue back to American households in equal dividend checks. Research has shown that this plan would achieve a 50% reduction in emissions, while growing the economy by $1.3 trillion and adding 2.8 million jobs, all in just 20 years. On top of that more than 2/3 residents of the 23rd district stand to benefit economically from this policy (that is, their dividend checks will exceed any increased energy costs). I don’t know about you, but adding jobs, growing the economy, and protecting our planet sure sounds like a winning strategy to me! That’s my idea, but if you’ve got a different one I’d love to hear it.

Two years ago in D.C. I challenged you to become our “climate hero” by being the politician who champions a bipartisan solution that works for the climate and our country. As a conservative leader who has taken steps to bridge the gap on climate change, you’re well positioned to make it happen. We’re looking for a hero, Tom. Is it you?