You’ve lost me

Dear Tom,

You’ve lost me.

In September, I had decided to vote for you. I attended an event at the college where I work, at which you were interviewed by two members of our faculty. You spoke about your ideas for reforming House procedures to encourage more bipartisan action. You were reasonable, thoughtful, and knowledgeable. You presented yourself as an experienced member of Congress who wants to work with Democrats on legislation that benefits the country.

I was impressed by you that day. And I was proud to say, “That’s my congressional representative. He’s a real moderate. He’s one of the good guys in Congress that’s standing above the terrible partisan rhetoric. He doesn’t attack people in the other party. He works with them.”

Throughout most of October I was still planning to vote for you. And then your campaign literature started arriving in my mailbox. And my phone started to ring in the evenings with people calling from your campaign.

My moderate, “problem-solving” congressional representative turned into a hateful politician, distributing unflattering images of his opponent and taking one minor position that she has held and using it to incite irrational fears in the members of his district.

You know what I’m talking about.

I don’t know who the real Tom Reed is. I don’t know if you are really the guy who impressed me in September or the guy who lets his political party and his campaign staff talk him into running the worst kind of negative campaign. Or if you’re even the guy who actually believes those things you put in your advertisements.

I don’t believe them. And I don’t believe in you anymore.

I’m sorry, Tom. You don’t have my vote on Tuesday.

I continue to hope that the Tom that I saw in September is the real Tom. But if he is, then he needs to start acting like that consistently, not just when he’s speaking at a college forum, but also when he’s on the campaign trail.

Your faithful constituent,



What I’ve learned

Dear Tom,

One year ago, I started this project of writing you regular letters. I’ve written 24 times in the past year. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Long, detailed letters don’t have any more influence on one’s congressional representative than letters that just state a position. Indeed, letters that say anything complicated (on the one hand, this; on the other hand, that) may have no influence at all. I have no evidence that anyone in your office (let alone you) ever read my letters. I did receive some correspondence in return, but those were boilerplate responses that could have been generated based on the subject I chose from an electronic drop-down menu and a quick skim to see if I was “for” or “against” something. If your staff was reading my letters more carefully, I couldn’t tell.
  2. It’s a lot of work to follow the intricacies of what is happening in Congress and of the specific legislation on which you are working. I can’t really get a sense of what’s happening just from reading summaries in newspapers or listening to news reports. It takes a lot of research–careful reading of multiple sources and seeking out analysis from different political perspectives. I spent several hours on research before writing each of my letters. Few people have time for this kind of thing.
  3. Political influence is still possible for ordinary people, but their options are limited. Either one needs to join up with some kind of lobbying organization (as some of my friends who are interested in climate-change legislation have done), or one can protest. (The two aren’t mutually exclusive). I saw the protest option in action at the town-hall meeting I attended in February. Political protest may get some things done but it does not foster nuance or civil debate. I’m glad that protest is still an option, but am less glad about how it coarsens the character of our discourse.
  4. Even if you say you’re committed to working on bi-partisan legislation, it’s very difficult for you to act on those words. Because you have to run for office every two years and you are supported by a party funded by people with certain ideological commitments, you don’t have much room for flexibility in how you actually vote. You’re stuck. I’m really sorry about that.
  5. Political discourse is quite degraded, especially on social media. People say awful things to you and each other on your Facebook page, and I’m sure your staff is deleting some of the worst. There don’t seem to be many venues in American culture for respectful debate.
  6. Engaging with one’s congressional representative can make one feel more kindly toward them. I like you, Tom. Even though I disagree with some of the positions you take, I have respect for you as a person. In the two town-hall meetings I attended in the past year, you conducted yourself with grace and dignity. Before I started this project, I saw you as a cardboard-cutout Republican, a mere set of political positions. Now I see you as a person in a complicated and compromised position, having to make difficult choices.
  7. Political engagement is rewarding. Even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t have any influence on you in the past year, I did find out about other people in my community who are interested in the same things I am—respectful and thoughtful engagement that breaks down traditional boundaries between right and left, Republican and Democrat. It was satisfying to figure out who those people are and to talk together about how to reform our political system.

I’m not sure how often I’ll be writing these longer letters in future (see point one). But I’m planning to stay engaged. You may hear from me in other ways. I’ll still come to town-hall meetings when I can and I’m looking forward to voting in the Republican primary next spring.

Thanks for an interesting year, Tom.

Your devoted constituent,


Would you risk everything?

Dear Tom,

On Friday morning, at 6:30 am, I was driving to Ace’s Diner in Belfast, NY for a weekly breakfast with women from my church and listening to Morning Edition on NPR (yes—despite my attempts to be more bipartisan I’m an unrepentant supporter of public radio). What I heard enraged me so much that I turned off the radio in frustration.

A political analyst (I tried to find the segment online but can’t locate it) was talking about how the Graham-Cassidy bill was likely to pass and how this would be a great “victory” for the Republican party. The interviewer asked him about the consequences if the bill did not go through and he said it would be a devastating political “loss.”

This is when I slammed my hand against radio knob. This disgusted me. Why? Because creating access to quality health care for as many people as possible should not be a matter of political victories or defeats. Passing a bill because there are enough votes to pass it (even though there’s not enough time to properly research its consequences, debate it, and get it scored by the Congressional Budget Office) is an example of our political system at its absolute worst.

You understand this. I saw your interview on MSNBC about the bill and you were plainly in a terrible spot. You have been promoting a bi-partisan approach to health care (which I whole-heartedly applaud!) yet your party came up with this strategy for a “political win.” You faced the dilemma of either going back on several months’ worth of talk about the need to work across the aisle or voting against your party while representing a district that’s very solidly Republican. I felt your pain in that interview.

So I felt a great sense of relief on Friday afternoon when I learned that Senator John McCain had declared his opposition to the bill. I felt particularly vindicated that McCain voiced the same opposition that I have. This is not a bill that moves us forward toward health-care solutions. It just swings the political pendulum the other way. If something like this passes, then the next time the Democrats are in power, they will swing it back in their direction. We wouldn’t be able to have any confidence that we know how our health-care system works. And that, I would imagine, is bad for the economy.

I’m grateful that we have a few courageous senators who are willing to take the political risk of being criticized by their party leaders and even insulted by our president. These senators (like Lisa Murkowski, John McCain, and Susan Collins) make it possible for house Republicans like you (with short terms of office and partisan bases) to even imagine bipartisan solutions.

I would like to think that you would be so courageous—that you would come out against your own party in a big, public way for a noble cause. I doubt you have the political capital right now to do it. But perhaps you might decide that the principle matters more than the politics.

I had dinner on Wednesday with Bob Inglis, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina (he came to the college where I work to give a talk). He lost his house seat in a primary a few years back because he decided that truth was more important than politics. He knew that taking action to mitigate the damage of climate change was vitally important before his district was ready to hear that message. It’s not easy to be principled. It might cost you everything, politically.

I’m now a registered Republican (remember my Christmas gift to you?) who is ready to vote for you in next spring’s primary if you continue your courageous stance on bi-partisan health care solutions. I know it’s risky for you, but I’m urging you to stay strong.

We’ve started harvesting the apples from the trees in our backyard and are planning on making cider this week. The kids are in full swing with their school activities and I’m enjoying going to my middle child’s soccer games. I hope you’re getting back to the 23rd district often enough to enjoy the glorious fall colors. It may be my favorite time of year.

Your devoted constituent,


Now’s your time to shine

Dear Tom,

It’s been quite a while since I last wrote but I want you to know that I am still paying attention. I took the month of August off from social media so I was a little more out of the loop as to what you were doing but I also honored your “August recess” by not writing to you during that month. Since then, I’ve been busy getting my kids off to school and keeping up with the overabundance of produce from my garden. As the days turn cooler and the leaves turn red, though, it’s time to get back to business.

I’m actually feeling more excited and hopeful about politics than I have in a while. Here’s a list of things that give me hope:

  1. You continue to use the rhetoric of bipartisanship and keep doing photo-ops with Democrat Josh Gottheimer.
  2. You voted against your party once this summer (see my previous letter) proving that you will act independently if you have a compelling reason to do so.
  3. There are deadlines coming up for legislative action with some significant (mostly political, but also economic) consequences if the legislation doesn’t come together.
  4. President Trump seems to want Congress to pass legislation on immigration that secures a place in the US for people who registered under the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Yes, I know that this is weird, given his previous rhetoric on immigration, but everything about this presidency is weird.
  5. President Trump is acting in unpredictable ways (no surprise there) but in ways that will put pressure on Congress to work on bipartisan legislation (a bit of a surprise, that one).

Given these positive signs, I generated a to-do list for you for the next three months. Here are some things that this constituent thinks you need to be working on:

  1. Passing a federal budget before the next “debt ceiling” deadline in December. I know that a lot of other things will get more media coverage and could distract congress from this job, but this is the most crucial and time-consuming thing you need to do, right? A government shut-down in December would be a lump of coal in Congress’s stocking.
  2. Continuing to work on stabilizing the health care marketplace. Let’s see if we can’t get some laws in place that guarantee every American reasonable options for buying health insurance. My sense that there are various plans out there. It’s time to get something passed so that no one is left without coverage.
  3. Passing immigration reform. There is a bill out there, the “Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act” (DREAM Act) that was introduced in 2001 and still has some life. It came 5 votes short of passing in 2010 and a new version was introduced in July. President Trump has given you a six-month window to pass something like this before the widely popular DACA program expires. It will be messy and contentious, but with people like yourself who have vowed to be “problem solvers,” it’s doable.

That’s more than enough to keep you busy until December. You will notice that I did not include tax reform in my list. That’s because that while I talk idealistically, there are also things about which I’ve got to be realistic. Large-scale tax reform, I predict, will play out a lot like large-scale health care reform. Congress will come up with some ideas, but as soon as they were “scored” and it became apparent that the benefits are largely going to corporations and people in higher income brackets, it will be impossible to come to agreement. I’m not opposed to tax reform as a concept. But it should wait until other, more urgent priorities are accomplished.

This is your moment to shine, Tom. Roll up your sleeves and show us what you can do.

I’m watching with interest,


Well look at that!

Dear Tom,

On June 22, I wrote to say that it would prove you wanted to be a bipartisan “problem solver” if you ever voted against your own party.

And you did it!

On July 13, you took a stand against your party on two amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018.

You were one of 24 Republicans to vote against an amendment that would have prohibited the military from paying for gender-reassignment therapies (proposed by Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo.). And you were one of 46 Republicans to vote against an amendment that would have prohibited the military from funding research into how climate change affects national security (proposed by Scott Perry, R-Pa.). In both cases, your vote helped the amendment to fail.

I don’t know what motivated these votes against your party since I haven’t heard or read any comments you’ve made about these votes. A Democratic stalwart in your district suggested that your motivation might have been merely strategic. But I’d rather not be that cynical.

One possible motive for opposing these amendments is that both sought to constrain the independence of the military to decide how to spend its own budget. Perhaps you think that the Defense Department should decide for itself whether paying for gender-reassignment therapies is beneficial or whether researching climate-change impacts is necessary. If that was your reasoning, it makes sense to me.

Whatever your motivation, I took this as a positive sign.

Voting against these amendments was not without political risk. Social conservatives were surprised and a little outraged that Republicans voted against the Hartzler amendment. And though you’ve come out publicly in support of working on climate-change solutions, it’s still a controversial issue among many Republicans. You voted against these two amendments anyway.

You are willing to vote against the majority of your party and with Democrats when you think it is necessary. This makes me hopeful that bipartisan cooperation can be more than mere rhetoric.

The next big test of your moderate, pro-bipartisan stance may come if the health care bill fails in the Senate and congress has to go back to the drawing board. I’m pretty excited about that possibility, Tom.

In the meantime, thanks for proving me wrong!


Two cheers for bureaucracy

Dear Tom,

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!


Words, words, words

Dear Tom,

I know, it’s been a while since I’ve written. It’s not because I’ve become disengaged or am not following politics. It’s because I’m not sure that I have anything to say.

Two big legislative initiatives (health care and financial deregulation) have both already gone on to the Senate. Financial deregulation (the Financial Choice Act) was passed so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to comment.

I don’t have enough details about your work on tax reform or an infrastructure bill to know what to tell you. I watched your interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN about your efforts with the “Problem Solvers Caucus” to talk with Democrats about these issues. But I don’t have a lot of confidence in the ability of the House to work on bi-partisan legislation.

Why do I lack confidence in your ability to work together with Democrats?

Well, let’s talk about financial deregulation.

Do you remember September 29, 2008? I remember that day well. I was at work and opened my browser; my homepage was the online version of the New York Times. The front page showed a graphic of the stock market crashing. I kept refreshing my browser and the line on the graph kept going down. My employer (a private college) depends on an endowment for part of its annual operating budget. When the stock market crashed, its endowment went “under water.” I had to take a pay cut in my next year’s salary. And as parents of prospective college students lost jobs and took their own pay cuts, they could no longer afford even the modest tuition of my employer. Our enrollment declined about 20% over the next five years. We went from a college of 1200 students to one of 950. We laid off employees and our economic impact in our local community shrank.

Why did the stock market crash? I’m sure there are complex answers to that question, but my understanding is, one of the largest sources of the problem was the housing bubble. And wasn’t the housing bubble caused by under-regulated banks making dubious loans to people who couldn’t pay them off? (if you haven’t seen the movie, The Big Short, I’d highly recommend it).

So I’m kind of a fan of financial regulation. I saw the Dodd-Frank bill as a victory for people like me who suffered from the consequences of banks making too much money too fast. The Financial Choice Act of 2017 which you voted for on June 8 eliminates many of the core provisions of the Dodd-Frank act. Readers of my blog may want a summary of how the Financial Choice Act alters Dodd-Frank; here’s a good one that doesn’t seem too slanted.

I’m not impressed. Neither, apparently, is the Senate. From the summaries I’ve read about this bill, it is not likely to pass the Senate in its current form; it’s too extreme, too partisan. Some moderate Republican senators (these people are my political heroes these days) won’t support it in its current form and so it (like the American Health Act) will need to be significantly rewritten.

Twice recently, then, you’ve voted for legislation (the American Health Care Act and the Financial Choice Act) that needs to be rewritten by the Senate because it’s too extreme. This is not legislation that the Problems Solvers Caucus worked on. You say that the Problems Solvers Caucus is going to work on Tax Reform and Infrastructure bills. Really? What evidence do I have that you’ll be able to pull this off?

When I see you listening to your constituents at Town Hall meetings, hear you interviewed about your leadership of the Problem Solvers Caucus, and see that you’ve joined the Climate Solutions Caucus, my spirits lift a little. I think: this is the kind of Republican representative that I can support.

But when I look at the legislation that you vote for and what this Congress has done since your re-election, my spirits sink.

I like your words, Tom. But not your actions.

Can you show me that you mean what you say? Can you stop voting with your party on legislation that isn’t going anywhere? If you’re doing this because you feel like you need to keep promises to voters who expected extreme dismantling of the previous administration’s accomplishments, I want you to know that this voter isn’t happy.

My garden is looking amazing right now. Today is the last day of school for my two kids in the local public school. The local farm stands are stocked with super-sweet local strawberries. I’m ready for summer. And I’m ready to see your actions align with your words, Tom.

In hope,



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 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,


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,


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,


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 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,


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?