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

One thought on “While I was away…

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