I’ll start this with a big “thank you” for holding another town hall meeting in my area. Your meeting yesterday morning in Belfast was just down the road from where I live. I regularly meet friends for breakfast at Ace’s diner and my church is just across the square from the fire hall where you met your constituents.
I attended the meeting with my husband (we were about four rows back on your left) and, in comparison to the last town hall meeting you held nearby last February, this one went much better. The fire hall was full, with some people standing at the back but everyone fit inside the building (unlike the crowds in the muddy parking lot in February). The sound system was working, you were only a few minutes late, and it felt like the crowd was a little more local.
Thank you for doing these. I was aware, as I know you were, that these meetings are not without their risks—and I don’t mean just political risks. Emotions run high at these events and it occurred to me that there could be someone in the crowd suffering from a mental illness. And that person could bring a gun. I noticed when I left that a number of state troopers were hanging around outside during the meeting. At the beginning of your remarks you referred to the shooting at the congressional baseball practice last month. It was a sobering thought.
So thank you for taking that risk—for trusting that the best way to resist violence is to not live in fear but to keep the practices of democracy functioning as normal.
I find these town hall meetings fascinating because they give me a glimpse into the nature of political discourse in the US now. They are one of the few places where I actually hear people with quite different political ideologies having a conversation. That conversation didn’t feel especially productive (if it even deserved the name “conversation”). You actually had to moderate, Tom—asking your constituents to listen to each other and not interrupt. Your constituents were shouting at each other rather than at you this time. But again, I was grateful to you for creating the opportunity for that conversation.
But I want to challenge you on something you said in framing the purpose of these town halls. In the email you sent to advertise the meeting, you said:
“We care about solving the many problems facing our country. This requires us to work together, since real solutions come from hard-working families and small business owners, not bureaucrats in Washington. I encourage you to share your thoughts and ideas at one of our town hall meetings.”
Is that true? Do “real solutions” really come from the people at these meetings?
As I listened to people tell their stories, expressing worry that their health insurance options were going to evaporate, their children with pre-existing conditions were going to be priced out of the insurance market, or their union pensions would be diminished, I heard a lot of emotion. But I didn’t hear any particularly insightful ideas about what to do.
You need to listen to your constituents so that you know what challenges people face. Tens of thousands of people in your district may lose the ability to purchase insurance so that insurance companies can lower premiums for those who can afford insurance. As you vote on a new bill, you need to hear from some of those people. Those are voices that you need to have in your ear as you add your name to the yes or no column.
But I’m not convinced that the people telling those stories are the best people to propose solutions to the health-care conundrum. In fact, I would argue that the best people to come up with those solutions are “Washington bureaucrats.” I think it probably takes knowledge of economics, sharp analytical skills, the ability to skillfully interpret statistics, clear-sightedness in predicting possible outcomes, and expertise in writing legislation to come up with sound health-care policy.
I’m aware that a bureaucratic class of people who are isolated from the lives of your constituents can have its own blind spots. They could write legislation that serves their own interests, or legislation influenced chiefly by people who can travel to Washington and bend their ears. In the past, that has often meant legislation very influenced by big business interests.
That’s why we need you, Tom, to listen to us. We need you to keep hearing the stories of frustrated and angry and frightened people so that you have those voices in your other ear when you are hearing a beautifully-designed presentation by a lobbyist from a health-insurance company.
But you don’t need to be afraid of expertise. You yourself are a “Washington bureaucrat.” You spoke with a lot of detailed knowledge yesterday about trade-union pension plans—something I knew nothing about. You’re on the Ways and Means Committee and know a lot about tax reform and trade.
Keep building that knowledge. Don’t run down expertise. You are one of the few house representatives doing these town hall meetings. You have the opportunity to model to your constituents your in-depth knowledge of issues. Unlike a campaign speech or an op-ed piece, these meetings are times for you to get beyond talking points and sound bites. I witnessed several moments yesterday when you actually starting talking about policy details. I appreciated that.
And your office also seems to be finally caught up on correspondence. When I sent my last letter to you it was about financial deregulation. And voila! Within a couple of days, I got a letter back from you about financial deregulation!
I have a follow-up point to make about that issue but I’ll save it for a future letter. I noticed this morning that this is my 20th letter to you since your re-election. So this is a bit of an anniversary for our relationship! I’ll keep plugging away at this task of engaging with you if you keep listening to me and your other constituents.
Hope to see you in Allegany County again soon!