Why?

Dear Tom,

It’s finally quiet on my street as the vendors for our town’s annual “Fun Fest” pack up their lemonade stands and taffy booths. I live just a block off Main Street and Memorial Day weekend is one of the key times of the year for community celebration. I walked down the block this morning with my kids and stood, chatting with a neighbor, as we watched veterans ride and march past, the school band play, and a local church hand out advertisements for Vacation Bible School.

As a Mennonite, I have ambivalent feelings about events that seem to celebrate warfare, so this is a national holiday that leaves me more reflective than festive. I strongly believe in the importance of cultural memory, however, so think about this as a time to remember the dead, grieve for their loss, and honor the memory of the good they did for their communities and country.

But that’s not the subject of this week’s letter. The subject is a simple question:

Why?

Why do you do what you do?

Why did you vote for laws deregulating industries and making them less accountable for pollution? Why did you vote for the American Health Care Act? Why do you continue to show unwavering support for our president?

I could probably think of more, but these are the three big ones that I have a hard time understanding. You’ve heard from many constituents on these issues so I’m not going to go into detail about why I wish you’d do differently. You’ve heard those reasons before.

When I started writing these letters last November, one of my goals was to try to be positive and understanding, not leap to conclusions based on my prior assumptions, not always assume that my team is right and your team is wrong, give you the benefit of the doubt.

So in the spirit of that goal, I’m going to try to understand why you take the positions that you do. Here are my ideas (ranked in order from most to least generous):

  1. You genuinely believe that the positions you support are the best ones. For example, perhaps you believe that the amount of environmental regulation that was in place (and growing) during the Obama era was unnecessary and that it kept businesses from growing. You may believe that the good of a stronger business climate outweighs the bad of potential pollution. Or, perhaps you don’t really believe that pollution is a problem (you turn on the tap and get clean drinking water; white-tailed deer are everywhere; bald eagles soar over the Genesee River). In terms of heath care, you may believe that the health insurance marketplaces under the ACA are going to fail. Big insurers are going to leave these marketplaces because they can’t make enough of a profit and people will be left paying higher prices with fewer choices. You may think that we don’t have a choice other than to come up with a very different system for health insurance because that choice is going to be forced on us. In terms of our president, perhaps you admire his ability to communicate his ideas. You may sincerely believe America is not “great” at the moment and that he is the man who can return us to some past state of greatness. You may believe that he is a capable leader with valuable skills for achieving results.
  2. Another generous interpretation is that your district is still solidly behind you. Maybe most people in the 23rd are not like me. The angry people that I see at your town hall meetings and on your facebook page, and the people with whom I talk politics regularly, are perhaps minority voices in this district. We are loud, but few. We don’t understand—or at least, don’t represent—what most people in this district want. Maybe most people don’t want environmental regulation, but do want a new health care plan that won’t cost as much even if fewer people can get insurance. Perhaps President Trump is still very popular with them.

Those are my best shots at generosity. Here’s another set of possibilities:

  1. You are a team player who is loyal to a group of people representing an ideology with which you find yourself roughly aligned. In general, you favor small government, lower taxes, and free-enterprise solutions to public problems. Because your team fought hard against the other team during the Obama years (seeing some things that they valued taken away), team loyalty now demands that you don’t question what your team is doing. If they say, “We’re going to repeal a bunch of regulations that the other team passed” or “We are going to repeal this health-care system that the other team created” or “We’re going to stand behind the president that our team chose no matter what he did or does”, you’re going to go along with the team. I’ve never observed you saying anything critical of a fellow Republican. You’re loyal. Even if many constituents tell you that they don’t like what you’re doing, you’re going to stick with your team.

This leads me to my final, most cynical, least generous interpretation of your motives:

  1. You were elected thanks in significant part to campaign contributions to your party, contributions from people and organizations who have a stake in what you do in office. You may feel that you are obligated to stick with ideas and initiatives approved by the people who funded your campaign (whether by direct donations to you, broader donations to your party, or donations to Super PACs that support your party). If you follow what your constituents ask you to do, and your constituents’ ideas do not align with those of your sources of funding, there’s a serious chance you won’t get re-elected. In my most cynical moods, I wonder if it wouldn’t even matter if a majority of your constituents disapproved of your positions. If you get the money to pay for campaign advertising, you’ll get re-elected anyway. Election wins can correlate pretty closely with campaign contributions. As an established incumbent, you will retain your funding sources if you stick with your party. If you criticize your party, take independent positions, or occasionally vote no on something your party backs, you may lose that funding and a more rigorously party-line Republican (who would inherit that funding) or even a Democrat (who would be supported by the party trying to regain ground) might take your seat.

If my most generous interpretations of your motives are true (you genuinely believe in your ideas and/or you represent the views of the majority of your district), I would expect to see you occasionally take an independent position. Can you possibly agree with everything your party advocates—on every issue? Can those stances in every case perfectly align with the needs and wishes of the 23rd district? Wouldn’t there inevitably be times when your core beliefs and the interests of your constituents cause you to vote against party? If everything your party says is good for every district, why have local representation at all?

I fear that my less-generous interpretations of your motivations have more of the ring of truth. You are so absolutely loyal to your party, that I can’t but help wonder why.

I’d love it if you would prove me wrong, Tom. Surprise me with your ability to take an independent stand. I’ve admired your willingness to host town-hall meetings and listen to your constituents, even belligerent ones. Now that you’ve listened, I’d like to see you respond in some concrete way to what you’ve heard. Even if that means going against the party line.

With expectation,

Susan

Quite a week

Dear Tom,

It’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?

I submitted my final grades for the spring semester on Monday and I’ve been able to turn to other office tasks, but also to my yard and garden. A pair of Eastern Phoebes are building a nest outside my kitchen window so I signed up with the Cornell Ornithology Lab to become a certified “Nest Watch” participant. My lettuce and kale and peas are coming along and we’ve been feasting on fresh asparagus and rhubarb. Yesterday I planted seeds for basil, parsley, and cilantro and put in some tomato, broccoli, and pepper seedlings. As my husband and I take late-evening walks around town, the air is filled with the scent of lilacs.

That’s not what you were thinking I was going to say, was it?

Even as I settled into my summer routine, I haven’t been able to entirely resist rubber-necking at the multi-car pile-up at the White House this week. Every day seemed to start or end with some new collision and the people that share most of my political outlook seemed to survey the wreckage with glee. I’m not going to summarize what happened. Anyone who has been awake this week knows at least the police-blotter version.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching you valiantly try to turn your constituents’ gazes away from the carnage and get us to watch videos of you sitting in committee meetings. That hasn’t been easy, has it?

But because I’m feeling well-rested (no more evenings prepping lectures or grading papers!) and well-fed (steamed asparagus with butter and sesame seeds! rhubarb pie!) and well-entertained (Eastern Phoebes nesting on the side porch and a new Netflix series based on Anne of Green Gables!), I actually sat down this morning and watched some of the footage of the Committee on Ways and Means talking about tax reform that you were advertising on your facebook page. You’re welcome.

The committee footage was 3 hours and 46 minutes long. Although I like to consider myself an engaged citizen, I wasn’t willing to spend my entire Sunday morning watching this footage. I opted instead to watch the opening statements of the two committee chairs and then sample some snippets of what the conversation was like.

Here’s what I gleaned:

We’re still in the middle of the same debate that we’ve been having since the 1980s. If we cut taxes for businesses and wealthy people, does the money that they don’t have to spend on taxes lead them to create more jobs and thus help everyone? Or, does cutting taxes for businesses and wealthy people just create more income inequality as the rich get richer, with the benefits not actually trickling down?

In his opening remarks, Chairman Kevin Brady (R-TX) asserts that cutting taxes for businesses will help the economy. He stresses that he’s talking about “small” businesses (constituents of his who own a “Mr. Rooter” plumbing franchise). Ranking member Rich Neal (D-MA) countered by emphasizing the burden that taxes are to middle-class Americans and advocating for policies that focus not on businesses, but on consumers.

It’s an old debate. Cutting taxes is always popular. Everybody hates taxes (except, perhaps, real liberals like myself who claim at least that we’ll cheerfully pay taxes in exchange for well-paid public school teachers, scientific research, and even art and music). But where to cut? The two sides of the argument seem to be: 1) Cut the taxes of businesses and they will expand and spur economic growth; 2) Cut the taxes of consumers and they will spend more and spur economic growth.

I’m neither an economist nor a historian and this seems like an issue about which there is a lot of debate and not a lot of clarity.  I tried to do a little research (confession: I googled, “does supply-side economics work?”), but the answers were inconclusive.  Whether one thinks supply-side economics works seems to depend on one’s starting assumptions and political allegiances. (Though I suppose the causation could run the other way, too: your political allegiances are determined by what you think about tax policy.)

If one tends to favor free-market solutions to economic problems and liked the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush, then one is likely to think that cutting taxes at the top is a good idea.  If one is comfortable with the government taking a stronger role in shaping society and liked the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, then one probably thinks that cutting taxes at the top doesn’t work.  It was hard to find an independent and neutral source to help me sort out my thinking on this question.

One thing that worries me, regardless, about cutting corporate taxes and the tax rates for people at the upper end of the income spectrum is that these are the entities and people who already have the most political influence.

Super PACs (organizations that can run advertising in support of political causes and don’t have to disclose their sources of funding) are a hugely influential force in American politics right now.  And people and corporations with lots of money can and do use that money to support Super PACs.  When candidates for office are helped with their election campaigns by the people and corporations who benefit from tax cuts, it does make me suspicious of those tax cuts.  I can’t be confident that we are making tax decisions based on cool-headed economic analysis and not as a quid pro quo.

I have heard some things (that I don’t understand very well yet) about high corporate tax rates in the US causing companies to seek tax shelters in other countries and foreign banks, thus keeping the US government from actually collecting taxes from US companies. I’m all for doing something about that problem if we can.  Representative Neal mentioned something about “deemed repatriation.” It sounds like a complicated but necessary conversation.

So what do I want to say to you, Tom?

I ask that, if you’re going to pursue tax cuts (again, always a popular cause), you emphasize cuts for small businesses and middle-income Americans and that you speak against the inevitable drift of policy toward benefiting large corporations and people with more wealth. From what I can see in my community, more cash for people to spend on health care, local shopping, and education would be a help right now.

Keep attending those committee meetings and doing your job even if the executive branch is setting out the emergency flares and trying to redirect traffic around the massive jam.  At least one constituent is trying to pay attention.

I can’t promise that I won’t ask you about President Trump sometime soon, but for this week I’ll keep chugging along with you on the tax-policy highway (if it’s an interstate highway, funded of course by federal tax dollars).

Your devoted constituent,

Susan