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?

Meet your newest constituent!

Dear Tom,

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Bretta, and I’m filling in for Susan this week while she’s traveling.

Now, before I proceed, I have to make the disclosure that the title of this letter is slightly misleading. I do not currently live in NY 23. Actually, my current address is in Washington DC. We’re neighbors! I will, however, be a constituent of yours in the near future, when I make the move from my current job as a lab technician at the National Institutes of Health to a PhD program at Cornell. And guess what! Students in my program take an average of five and a half years to complete their degrees, which means that on at least two  occasions in the next decade I will find myself standing in a voting booth, deciding whether to check your name, or that of your Democratic opponent. From where I sit right now, it could go either way, but one thing is sure: I will be there, and I intend to be ready.

Since this is my first letter to you, I thought I would begin by telling you about myself. First, some demographic data: I’m a twenty-seven year-old unmarried white woman. I hold three college degrees. My first is an Associate’s degree from a community college in the SUNY system. My second is a Bachelor’s in Biology from the same small Christian liberal arts college where Susan teaches. My third degree is a Master’s in Public Health from Boston University, which I completed in 2012. I have spent the five years since in a variety of short term jobs in fields ranging from food service to international non-profit work to higher education.

Like Susan, I am a Christian – more specifically a non-denominational Protestant. I was raised as a PK (Preacher’s Kid) and I still cleave to my spiritual roots. I go to church regularly, (perhaps you know it? The District Church in Columbia Heights?) and attend a weekly small group. With the aid of the Holy Spirit, and frequent muttered prayers, I strive to live my life in accordance with the example of Jesus Christ, and I trust him for my salvation.

I am also a registered Democrat. This is a source of significant bemusement and (sometimes) dismay to my parents. They have to crane pretty far over their left shoulder to see me, and what they see often makes them shake their heads. Many in my extended family have never even considered voting for a Democrat. I, on the other hand, have yet to cast a vote for a Republican. Not that I’ve voted for many Democrats either. Like many people my age, my voting history is quite spare. A brief history of my political activity to date:

  • The presidential election of 2008: I filled out an absentee ballot for McCain, stared at it gloomily for several minutes, then tore it up and went back to studying for exams.
  • The presidential election of 2012: I was living in Haiti, and hadn’t thought to apply for an absentee ballot. I felt vaguely guilty about this, but when the results were in I went to bed thinking “all’s well that ends well.”
  • The Democratic primary of 2016: I donated $50 to Bernie Sanders, and cheerfully cast my vote for him.
  • The presidential election of 2016: I voted for Hilary Clinton, and for all the Democratic candidates riding her coattails.

You may have noticed that 2016 marked a shift in my level of political engagement. And I’m sure you haven’t had any difficulty in guessing why.  There is a lot that I could say about our current president, but I promised Susan I would be on my best behavior, so I will refrain. Suffice it to say, the outcome of the Republican primary, the general election, and the first 60+ days have successively shaken my faith in our electoral system, and have led me to consider my responsibilities as a member of the electorate. How should I respond to the election of a man whom I consider dangerously unfit for the office of President? Should I rail against the electoral college and punctuate my social media posts with #notmypresident? Should I vow to #resist, and call for the head of any Democrat who dares to compromise with the Trump administration? Should I threaten to move to Canada? Or should I declare that democracy is a sham, that politics are a shell game, and that I am renouncing both so I can spend my time more productively watching cat videos?

Hopefully the fact that I am writing this letter makes it clear that I have not opted for any of these responses. In my heart of hearts, I don’t believe the system is rigged. I don’t believe that politicians are soulless suits. And I don’t look across the aisle with hatred. I believe that if you want to solve any problem, you must begin by addressing the log in your own eye, and mine is not hard to find:

I have been inexcusably lazy.

For most of the past ten years I have succumbed to apathy: failing to vote in midterm elections. Failing to communicate with my elected representatives. Failing to learn vital facts about important political issues. In more recent years, I have found new ways of being lazy: Consuming an unbalanced media diet. Voting for Democrats without knowing a thing about them beyond the fact that they are Democrats. Reflexively attributing sinister motives to those with whom I disagree.

Well Tom, if I am really going to own my role in creating the problem it behoves me to make some constructive changes to my approach. So here they are:

  1. For the next five years, I will make it my business to exercise my right to vote at every opportunity I am given (primary and general, national, state, and local).
  1. I will never again cast my ballot for a candidate solely on the basis of his/her party affiliation.
  1. I will adopt a right-leaning media outlet (I’m thinking The Economist) to supplement my current media diet.

As you can see, I have my work cut out for me, and I’ve already begun my research – starting with you. I’ve taken out a subscription to the Ithaca Journal, and I’ve started to read up on your voting record and watch clips of your latest townhall meetings on YouTube. I’ve even dug up a few subcommittee hearings on the House Ways and Means YouTube channel (which I found much more interesting than their view counts suggested they would be). So, what have I learned about you so far?

Out of all the data I have sifted through so far, the most interesting to me was the video of a Town Hall meeting in Ithaca, my soon-to-be new home, earlier this month. I have to hand it to you, that was gutsy. You had to know what was waiting for you there. Ithaca is probably the single most staunchly liberal municipality in Tompkins county – the only county you lost last year. I watched the video with interest (notwithstanding all the yelling and stamping, the poor sound quality, and the Planned Parenthood signs blocking the camera).

Overall, I thought you were remarkably patient, respectful, and pleasant in a palpably tense situation. I liked that. I also appreciated your conversation with Assemblywoman Lifton. It was fascinating to me to see the gears of state government meet the gears of national government. Seeing that interaction helped to humanize something that has always been abstract to me.

Most of the meeting was spent on a Q and A focused on your party’s efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. Minus the bullhorn, the scene was very similar to what Susan described at the town hall meeting she attended. Most of the people in that room like the ACA, and they took the opportunity to vent some frustration at your expressed support for repealing it. You countered their concerns about lost health coverage by saying that you have heard anecdotes from other constituents who have suffered under the ACA.

That did not go over well.

I have to say, Tom, it’s going to take a little more than that to justify your position in my eyes. For every anecdote you can report of struggling business owners, and people not getting to see the doctor they wanted, I can counter with two more about the dire straits faced by the uninsured. It leaves me wondering: how did you reach your decision to support Repeal and Replace?

-Were you moved by the stories of constituents of yours who were negatively impacted by the ACA?

-Did you review scientifically collected data that convinced you that the ACA had a net negative impact on your constituents? On the country? If so, what was it?

-Do you hold Conservative doctrines and values of self-sufficiency above your constituents’ expressed desires and practical needs?

-Were you pressured by your party to toe the line?

-Were you, as suggested by one constituent at the meeting, motivated by a vindictive desire to obliterate the legacy of a Democratic president?

Here is what I hope: I hope that I can trust you to represent the best interests of your whole district. I hope you are a compassionate person who takes consideration of the most vulnerable people in it. I hope that you are a reasonable person who is capable of being swayed by solid arguments and data. I hope that you are a wise person who is able to understand the complexity of the problems you are tasked with solving. I hope you are an open-minded person who is willing to see the perspective of the opposition and, on occasion, to compromise with them. In short, I hope you are the kind of person I could vote for. I don’t know yet if you are, but fortunately your next election is a long way off, and I will have lots of time to do my homework.

I hope you come to Ithaca again this year. If you do, I will be there.

Your almost constituent,


First steps

Dear Tom,

I sent you a quick note earlier in the week to thank you for supporting the Republican Climate Resolution, but it’s the weekend and it’s time for a longer letter.

I’m very pleased that you cosponsored that resolution, which speaks clearly about the “conservative principle to protect, conserve, and be good stewards of our environment, responsibly plan for all market factors, and base our policy decisions in science and quantifiable facts on the ground.”

This is a statement that should create common ground between you and many of your constituents in the 23rd district. And this is just the kind of move toward the center of the political spectrum that I, as a moderate voter, had been hoping to see from you. Well done, Tom!

That wasn’t so hard, was it?

But there are some next steps I think you should take that will be harder. Supporting a “resolution” on an issue does not commit you to support or withdraw your support from any specific legislation. You’ve added your name to a list with 16 others who are also on your political team. Are you ready to go further?

What about joining the “Climate Solutions Caucus”? This is a bipartisan group founded last year by legislators from Florida: one Republican (Carlos Curbelo) and one Democrat (Ted Deutch). The plan is for the membership of this caucus to remain evenly distributed between the two parties. No Democrat will join unless a Republican also does and vice-versa. I suspect that there are some Democrats lined up to join this group but they can’t join until there are Republican members to match them.  What if you and the seven other representatives who signed this week’s Republican Climate Resolution (and who haven’t done so already) also joined this caucus?

You’d be joining representatives John Faso and John Katko, also from New York, and so would have some regional buddies on this issue. There’s also Barbara Comstock from Virginia, Frank LoBiondo from New Jersey, Pat Meehan from Pennsylvania, David Reichert from Washington State, and Mark Sanford from South Carolina. That’s a big pack of Republicans who’ve come out in support of doing something about Climate Change. If all of you joined the Climate Solutions Caucus together, that would both provide safety in numbers and really make a statement!

That might be a little harder, but I think it’s a feasible next step for you and one that would make this constituent really happy.

The steps after that will be much, much harder. That’s when you actually vote for legislation that does what is described in your resolution:

“create and support economically viable and broadly supported private and public solutions to study and address the causes and effects of measured changes to our global and regional climates.”

That’s going to be tough.

But you’ve taken the first step this week. Keep going.

Your personal cheerleader (on bi-partisan climate legislation),



Dear Tom,

Did you miss me?

I took last week off from writing so that I could enjoy a weekend getaway with my husband to New York City. We had a grand time eating out at nice restaurants, going to see a show, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and walking through Central Park. But that was vacation. Now I’m back to work.

And I’m feeling stuck. When I started writing to you in November I was feeling dispirited but also energized. Our country had just elected a president whom I do not admire and my congressional district had just re-elected a representative that, more often than not, supports policies with which I disagree. But I was determined that if I took the time to be politically engaged, wrote to you regularly, showed up at your town hall meetings, tried to work together with people with whom I disagreed, that things would be okay.

Four months later, I don’t think it’s working out very well.

I’ve been faithfully writing to you and following your website, facebook page, and any time you’re interviewed. You’ve been conducting Town Hall meetings and heroically listening to people tell you how much they dislike what you’re doing.

But it feels like each of our efforts are futile. Each week, your party proposes some new initiative following up on your promises to undo the policies of the previous presidential administration. They valued flexibility on immigration; you’re building a wall. They valued an expanded role for the government in ensuring more health-care coverage; you’re proposing a more market-based approach that has fewer protections for the poor and elderly. They valued environmental initiatives to curb climate change and protect air and water; you’re rescinding regulations on oil, gas, and mining. They valued using the federal court system to ensure civil rights; you’re supporting judges who want to allow different states to come to different conclusions about issues like abortion and gay marriage.

And everything that your party tries to do is met with howls of protest. Some of my friends take the position that everything your party is trying to do must be terribly wrong just because your party is trying to do it.

We all belong to teams. And we’re treating politics like a competitive sport. If your team wins then my team loses. That’s how sports work.

Here’s an example from this week. Even though the Republican alternative to the ACA has been widely criticized (the AARP, for example, came out against it), you cheerily went to the White House to be praised by the president for supporting it. And the people in your district who have been angrily showing up to all your town hall meetings, wailed with fury. They feel hopeless. You’ve been so patiently attending all these meetings. Did it make no difference?

Your team supports undoing the basic structures of the ACA even if older people lose coverage.  The other team will not support anything you propose, I suspect, even it’s more sensible than what you put forward this week. We are at an impasse.

Doesn’t it feel sometimes like the two political parties are in a failed marriage? I wish, sometimes, that I could put the party leadership in a room with a counselor or mediator. You know that exercise where you have to describe the other person’s perspective in a way that they could endorse? Do you think that would be helpful?

I’m not sure what to tell you, Tom. I’m feeling frustrated. Neither party is behaving well. I need to get around to writing or calling to my Democratic senators to tell them that I’m tired of their strategy of opposing everything, just for the sake of being oppositional.

But I’m stubborn. So I’m going to keep writing to you and telling you how I feel. I may never get a personal acknowledgement that you have any idea I’m out here, but it makes me feel like at least I’m doing something.

Not giving up,


Seeking synonyms

Dear Tom,

After a week of peculiarly warm temperatures for February, I’m watching the snow fall again today. It’s been a relaxing weekend as I head into a week-long break from teaching. I still have lots of reading and grading to do, but the campus will be quiet with all the students gone. It will also be a week to schedule some appointments that are hard to fit into my regular routine. I’m taking my younger son to a pediatric dentist tomorrow afternoon to get some cavities filled and I finally have time to schedule a haircut.

This talk of appointments gets me to the subject of my letter to you this week. Ever since I attended your Town Hall meeting and heard you talk about your ideas for health care reform, I’ve been planning to tell you about my experience.

At the meeting, you said you want to replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA) with a plan under which people would have Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and contribute to them with money they get through a tax credit. I have an HSA, so I’d like to tell you about how that’s worked (for good and for ill) from my perspective.

Through my employer, I am enrolled in a high-deductible insurance plan. My husband has the same employer so we have the simplicity of being on the same plan. The deductible for our family is $5200 per year.

That means that whenever we go to the doctor for anything beyond really basic preventative health care (vaccinations for our kids, yearly physicals), we pay whatever price our doctors have negotiated with the insurance company. So last summer when my daughter had a sore wrist and my son had a weird rash and I took them to see a doctor, we had to pay the full (negotiated) price for those visits. I had a torn meniscus in my knee this fall and needed surgery, and that also cost the full (negotiated) price for the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, etc. The MRI to diagnose the torn meniscus, the visits to the orthopedist, and the physical therapy afterwards were all our responsibility.

This is where our health savings plan comes in. My employer contributes $2600 per year to our HSA. We use that $2600 to pay for our doctor’s visits. This should sound pretty good to you. I think you’re intending that families get at least that much as a tax credit. They could use that money for those kinds of bills.

There are, however, a couple of things about this that are not ideal—at least for people with a lower income than my family. First, you will note that $2600 from my employer is only half of our deductible. So if my family of five has medical expenses beyond $2600 but less than the deductible then we must pay for those ourselves. Will you be able to provide a large enough tax credit to get people without a lot of extra cash in the bank closer to their deductibles?

But the $2600 that I get is a lot of money, right? That should be plenty except in a year when there is a major health crisis (or a minor but expensive one like my knee surgery). In which case, our family would hit its deductible and be grateful that we only had to pay $2600 out of pocket. And if we used funds that we had deposited in our HSA, they would be tax-free to boot.

$2600 would be an adequate amount of money for a relatively healthy family of five if we only had to use it to cover qualified medical expenses. But our insurance doesn’t cover dental or vision. So every year we burn through much of our HSA fund on dental exams, orthodontist’s visits, and eye care. Four-fifths of us wear corrective lenses (so far). So the $2600 disappears pretty quickly. And we’re on our own for the next $2600. We typically spend several thousand dollars more than our employer contributes. And because a lot of this goes toward dental and vision, it doesn’t count toward our deductible.

This isn’t dreadful for us. We make decent professional salaries and paying several thousands of dollars per year in health-care costs is not a crisis. I am not really asking you to fix health care for people like me (middle-class professionals with a stable source of employment).

I will point out, however, that we are not so well off that we can do anything we like with our budget regardless of how much we spend on health care. We are gradually fixing up our older home—increasing its value and the property values of homes on our street by making it a more beautiful and pleasing place to live. Every summer, when we can afford it, we like to do some kind of improvement project. This coming summer we were planning on expanding a side porch, creating a new entrance, and transforming our laundry room/pantry in to an entry/mudroom. We hire local contractors to do these renovations and try to buy most of our supplies from a locally-owned lumberyard (a shout-out here to the wonderful folks at Nunda Lumber).

This year, partly because of my knee surgery and those cavities that my son is getting filled, I’m not sure whether we’ll have enough left over in savings to take on this project. Instead of our money going into the kinds of things that would help our local economy, it has gone to health-insurance companies that exist somewhere out in the netherworld of corporate finance. It’s hard to see how the money we put into health care benefits our community.

And I am considerably better-off than many people in our district. Families with lower incomes than mine would have to cut back on more essential things than home improvement to meet those high deductibles.

So HSAs, in my experience, are not a bad thing. But they also don’t feel like a solution.

The other thing about your plan that worries me is the elimination of the individual mandate that requires people to carry health insurance. Without it, a lot of relatively healthy people will go without insurance. Why get insurance and then still have to pay out of pocket until you reach a high deductible? If you were in their shoes, mightn’t you be tempted to forego insurance altogether? And without everyone signing up for health care, insurance companies would lose profits. Then they’d have to raise their premiums and deductibles.

Despite how easy your press releases make this sound, I don’t think there are any “common-sense solutions” that everyone can agree on. This is going to be hard.

HSAs are one tool that might be part of a responsible health-care plan. The individual mandate is another tool that I think you may find indispensable.

I suspect that, as a conservative, you don’t like the language of “mandates”—it sounds like government overreach. Here’s where you can be creative, though, Tom.  I’ve noticed that some of your colleagues are starting to use the language of “repair” instead of “repeal” for the ACA. That was a clever way to shift positions while sort-of-sounding like they’re talking about the same thing. Perhaps you could do the same thing with the individual mandate. Could you find a synonym for “mandate” that sounds more pleasant to conservative ears? What about “individual requisite”? That sounds vague and bureaucratic enough for government work.  “Individual obligation” might have nice moral overtones. You have bright people on your staff and in your caucus. I bet they could come up with something.

Although you did send me those three form emails, I’d still love to get a personal note from someone in your office acknowledging these letters and my blog. I’m very curious what you think of them if you ever have time to read them.

As ever,



Dear Tom,

This is the week I’ve been waiting for. I received three letters from you and got to attend a town hall meeting in my neighborhood. It was a good week for contact with my representative.

In an ideal world, these contacts would have gone something like this:

The letters I received from your office would have said, “Wow, Susan! You’ve written to me almost weekly since November. I appreciate how you’re trying to frame issues in terms of common ground that we share. I’m reading and paying attention to what you’re saying.”

The town hall meeting I attended would have featured a lot of calm constituents taking turns asking questions and hearing your answers. There would have been time and space for each person to ask the questions or make the statements they wanted to, and you would have been able to explain what political initiatives you were working on and why.

We don’t live in an ideal world.

So what actually happened this week

I received three form letters from you—stock responses on popular topics. These are responses your office can send out to whoever writes a letter or makes a phone call. If a constituent writes with concerns about health care, she gets the stock health-care letter. If a constituent calls about immigration, he gets the stock immigration letter. I get it. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of constituents. I don’t know how many letters or phone calls you receive every day. Hundreds? Samara, Kyle, Natalie, Tom, and Brenden (and others in your office) don’t have time to craft individualized responses.

I had the fantasy that maybe because I put considerable time into this correspondence and more than a hundred people are reading what I write to you that I was a special case. Maybe I would get a more personalized reply. Nope.

The town hall meeting was also not ideal. I arrived to find hundreds of people standing in a muddy parking lot—some carrying signs protesting various policies you support. You had done three other town hall meetings that day and arrived late. There wasn’t room for everyone inside the building you’d reserved so you had to answer questions via a borrowed megaphone. Some people at the event were loud and rowdy, interrupting you and making it hard both for people to ask questions and for you to give responses.

I stayed around for half an hour after you arrived before I had to go meet my family for supper. I knew quite a few people at the meeting who had come prepared with carefully and gently worded questions. They didn’t have a chance to speak while I was there, and it wasn’t looking likely to happen later. It was pretty chaotic and disappointing.

So this week did not exactly satisfy my desire for productive and meaningful political engagement.  But it wasn’t a complete train wreck either.

First, you did write me back! That’s something. I’m happy to see that your office is catching up with the standard back-and-forth that representatives have with their constituents. I was getting worried, since I had been writing to you for several months and hadn’t even received one of these form letters. So now you’ve done that.

Second, I was impressed with your calm and measured engagement with some pretty angry people at the town hall meeting. Some of your congressional colleagues are refusing to hold town hall meetings or are holding them by phone so that they can control the situation. You put yourself in the middle of a muddy parking lot with people who were shouting at you and you kept your cool.

That was courageous. I may not agree with all of your policy ideas, but I was impressed with you yesterday. I hope you keep doing these town hall meetings (maybe pick some larger venues and get microphones) and modeling willingness to engage with people who disagree with you. Well done, Tom.

Also, I left early and didn’t get to see how the event played out. When I checked Facebook later in the evening, I saw a group photo with you and a bunch of the people I knew at the event. It looks like they did get to interact with you in a more peaceful way. I gave up too soon and regret I didn’t stick around a little longer.

So on the whole, I’m hopeful. Your office is getting back into its routine. And when constituents were more patient and persistent than I was, they got to engage with you.

I’m not giving up. I’ll keep writing and keep showing up to try to meet you whenever I can—even if it’s the middle of a muddy parking lot in a messy, imperfect world.

With hope,


My week and your week

Dear Tom,

It’s been a while since I’ve given you an update about what’s going on in my life, so I’ll take a few moments to tell you about my week.

In my family, we celebrated the birthday of my middle child. He wanted a red velvet cake, but I didn’t like the idea of all that red food coloring, so I made this one instead. It turned out great; I highly recommend it. It would work great for Valentine’s Day too.

At work, we’ve been busy approving the details of our new general-education curriculum to go into next year’s academic catalog. That’s meant some extra meetings and some of my usual meetings going extra-long as we work to get this done.

One of the classes I’ve been teaching this semester is on the novels of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. After the very passionate and somewhat gothic Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, we turned to the quieter, gentler Agnes Grey this week. I love to see how my students are developing their critical-thinking skills, noticing patterns in these books and analyzing the details. We’ve also talked a lot about the Victorian period in English history and how these novels demonstrate very different assumptions about class, gender, economics, and religion than we make in 21st century America. I’ve been watching the PBS mini-series on Queen Victoria too. Along with the great acting and costumes, it’s a fascinating study of strategic political positioning. You might like it.

Finally, I’ve been calling your office every day (although I missed Friday as one of my meetings went until after 5 pm and I missed the hours when your offices were open). I’ve spoken to Samara, Kyle, and Brenden (twice). Samara sounds a little weary. Kyle is very upbeat. But my favorite person to talk to is Brenden, who said he is an intern in your office. He sounds young. And earnest. As someone who works at a college, I really like young, earnest people.

What have you been up to this week?

I see that you’ve been in Rochester celebrating the 21st Century Cures Act which you helped pass late in November last year. It’s a bill that got a lot of bi-partisan support and was enthusiastically signed by President Obama. It will help people with serious illnesses get access to experimental drugs faster so it’s a significant win for people with serious illnesses. It’s also a big win for pharmaceutical companies. I’m always nervous about legislation that is a result of lobbying by huge corporations, but I can see that this bill will help some people who feel pretty hopeless.

I can see why you want to talk about legislation from several months ago. Much of the work of Congress is behind-the-scenes right now. I assume that you’re working on tax reform, an infrastructure bill, and health-care reform. But those are things that will and should take time.

You haven’t said anything in public about your votes for environmental deregulation as part of the Congressional Review Act. Those votes would probably be pretty controversial within your district—some of your constituents would be very supportive of deregulation and some would not (I wrote to you about this on January 29).  You voted to overturn rules that would regulate what coal companies can dump into streams, how much methane can be released into the atmosphere by oil and gas companies, and what kinds of financial disclosures oil and mining companies need to make about their payments to overseas governments.

I’ve been admiring some of your Republican colleagues in the Senate lately and noticing how a couple of them are willing to vote independently of their party. Susan Collins of Maine is a great example of this. And it’s put her in a position of considerable power. Both parties angle for her vote because neither is confident that it will get it. But I realized something, too. Because you only have a two-year term, it’s harder for you to be as bold or as principled as a senator with a six-year term. Perhaps you have to play it safer.

Remember my promise to you in December, Tom? If you move to the center and sometimes resist your party to do what is best for your constituents, I’ll support your re-election (especially in the primary where you might feel the greatest risk).

I’ve got another busy week ahead of me. I hope you do too. And I hope to see more detail about what you’re actually doing. And a little more courage.

See you at your town hall meeting on Saturday!


What are you afraid of?

Dear Tom,

I’ve been thinking about fear this week. I’ve been puzzling over two facts. First, that our fears are one of the things that motivate our efforts for political change. And second, that people fear very different things.

This prompted me to think about what I fear. I drafted a partial list (these are not ranked):

  1. The sudden tragic death of my husband or one of my children. My brother died in his sleep in his late-thirties leaving a wife and four children. The sudden death of a spouse is something I fear. The death of a child is, of course, the stuff of nightmares.
  2. The college that I work for closing because of financial collapse. I fear losing the only job I’ve had in my professional career and having to try to sell a house in a community in which the major economic contributor has just gone under. I’m in administrative meetings where we talk about how tight the budget is. If, hypothetically, the governor of our state is successful in directing massive amounts of state financial aid toward public universities rather than private ones and a quarter of our entering freshman class chooses to go to a state university, I doubt my college would survive.
  3. Cancer. My mom died of undetected colon cancer. I know lots of people who have cancer. It scares me.
  4. The future of my children. Will their lives continue on healthy and productive pathways? Will they keep their faith in God and remain connected to the church?  Will they go to college or find something productive to do with their lives and be able to support themselves financially? Or, will something happen along the way (sexual assault, mental illness, a foolish choice) that will send their lives careening off a proverbial cliff? I’ve seen it happen.
  5. Heights. I’m really, really, scared of heights. I don’t like going to the tops of tall buildings, standing at the edge of cliffs overlooking waterfalls, or driving over big bridges. I don’t like these experiences at all.

I could expand this list. But I noticed when I thought about it that one thing I’m not afraid of is a terrorist attack. I don’t think much about terrorism at all. My family spends a few months in London, England, every couple of years and when we are there, I think a little more about terrorism. As I ride the escalator deep into the underground transportation system of a major world capital, I do think, now and then: “okay, it’s a possibility, something could happen.”

But in my day-to-day life in rural New York state, I don’t worry about national security.  I’m pretty confident this is a problem that is not likely to touch my life.

But some of my neighbors in rural western New York do worry about terrorism. They are really worried that immigrants and refugees coming to the United States are going to launch attacks–or, at least, try. They tell me they don’t understand why I’m not more concerned.

At some level, I understand what they are saying. We had a large-scale terrorist attack on the United States in 2001. There have been other killings since by terrorists. I did a little research on this and it looks like 94 people have been killed in the US since 2001 in terrorist violence. Those were 94 precious lives. Every death was the realization of some mother’s nightmare.

But because fears are so visceral and often irrational—take, for example, my fear of heights or that my husband will die suddenly—it is difficult to have a calm discussion about these things and how to respond appropriately.

Many people were excited and relieved by President Trump’s travel ban on people from Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Libya, and Yemen because they saw it as addressing their fears. Many other people were outraged and annoyed because they, like me, are not afraid. Or they’ve decided that the risk of terrorism is less important than living in a country that helps families flee from war, or helps smart graduate students study in great universities, or lets people experience American freedom to start businesses and make a better life for themselves.

So what are you afraid of, Tom? Are you afraid that allowing refuges from Libya, Somalia, and the Sudan to resettle in Buffalo is risking a terrorist attack in the 23rd district or elsewhere? Are you afraid that people from these countries are going to carry out another large-scale attack like the one in 2001? Or, are you afraid that if you don’t support a president who has a lot of popular support, you’ll lose your election two years from now?

I’ve kept my promise to call your office every weekday in February. On Wednesday, I had a conversation with Tom, a case worker in the Corning Office. On Thursday, I spoke with Natalie in the DC office and on Friday with Samara in DC. Thank them, for me, for their graciousness in listening. It must be annoying to have to listen to constituents who do not agree with what your boss is doing. They were very polite.

I see that you’re going to be visiting my neighborhood on February 18 for a town-hall meeting. I asked you to do that in a previous letter, and now you are. Thank you! I’m looking forward to meeting you then.

Until next week,



Dear Tom,

If you walk or drive about a half a mile east from my house, you cross a concrete bridge over a wide, shallow river. It’s unspectacular. When it’s dry, it becomes wide swathes of rocks with just a narrow channel. When we’ve had lots of rain, it’s a muddy, churning flow. A few years ago, in late winter, after it had frozen and then partially thawed and started to break apart, it froze again, leaving jagged chunks of ice poking upward. That was cool.

My favorite times to cross the river are on early morning runs when there’s mist rising and I can glimpse the pink sunrise. A couple of times I’ve seen bald eagles coasting high between its banks.

It’s the Genesee. One of just a few North American rivers that flow northward. It has a couple of really spectacular spots where it pushes through a gorge and descends over a waterfall. But not very near my town. Here it’s just a river where, on the hottest days in summer, people park their cars on the loose rocks and wade in to cool off.

It’s also a Superfund site. The Superfund program was begun by congress in 1980 when they passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA).[1] According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website (as of this morning), the program is “responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.”[2]

The river a half mile from my house is not especially clean. It’s possible to fish in the Genesee, but I’ve been told that you shouldn’t eat what you catch. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation classifies the section near my house as Class C: “suitable for general recreation use and support of aquatic life, but not as a water supply or for public bathing.”[3] On the other hand, the data supporting this classification is really old. The water hasn’t been officially assessed since 1999. The river might be cleaner now than it used to be. Or not.

The Superfund site on the Genesee is upriver from where I live—about 30 miles south, just upstream from the village of Wellsville. It’s where the Sinclair Refining Company (formed in 1901) was generating waste like “tank sludges from a solvent plant, sludges from an oil separator, acids, pesticides, waste oil and heavy metals.”[4] These were put into a landfill near the river but due to erosion leaked into the river itself.

This became a Superfund site in 1983 and the EPA has been working ever since on cleaning it up—enacting various measures to keep contaminants out of the river. They’ve made progress and, as of a 2012 report, “all systems were operating as designed and are protective of human health and the environment.”[5]

How do I know all this? There is an excellent website run by the EPA that details exactly what they’ve been doing.

I wanted to point this out to you because, for me, it demonstrates two things key to our democracy:

1) Environmental regulation is sometimes very important, especially for businesses (like the Sinclair Refining Company, later ARCO) that manufacture “heavy oils and grease for lubrication applications, light oil for fuel, naphtha, gasoline, aniline, lighter fluid and paraffin.” The problems with their landfill originated in a less-regulated era. I would rather not return to a time when fewer regulations are in place, putting my watershed and my family’s and neighbors’ health in danger.
2) Citizens need to be able to find out exactly what their government is up to. The EPA website is helpfully organized and contains both overall summaries and detailed information. I thought I was going to have to do a lot of digging to find out about our local Superfund site, but it was all there, easy to find, on the website.

I’d like you to be a champion for these two things. First, regulations that keep businesses from doing harm to their neighbors. Putting their waste into a landfill near the river was in the best interest of Sinclair Refining Company/ARCO, but it wasn’t in the best interest of the people who live near the Genesee. That’s why regulation matters. Second, I’d like you to champion transparent communication of government information so that citizens can know what their government is doing. There are, as you know, some signs that the Trump administration wants to control what information government agencies (especially ones associated with environmental concerns) share with the public. Could you please tell President Trump that citizens need access to as much information as possible in this area?

I don’t know if my messages have been getting through to you or not, since you haven’t written back. So I’ve decided to take my political action to the next level. I’m committing, for the month of February (it’s a short month), to call your office every weekday and talk to someone in person.

Don’t worry; I plan to emphasize ideas that I think you, as a conservative, should support:

1) Not allocating taxpayer money for a border wall. Have you seen the estimates of how much this is going to cost? As a fiscal conservative, I know that you don’t want to fund expensive projects that add to the national debt.
2) Coming up with a plan for health care so that when you repeal the ACA, there’s something to take its place. I know that you want to make sure that health care for Americans is better, not worse, than what we had before. Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House. This is your moment; use it well.
3) Helping America maintain (or return to) its identity as the most welcoming place for immigrants in the world—a place that declares to anyone who values hard work, freedom, and entrepreneurship that this is the place for them. When people flee from conflicts instigated by extremists, they can come to the US to experience what is great about America.

I’m looking forward to lots of friendly conversations with folks in your office in the next month.

Your devoted constituent,



I’ve got an assignment for you

Dear Tom,

It’s an unseasonably warm January Sunday and I’m finally getting back to my project of writing to you after taking care of all sorts of typical, beginning-of-semester tasks and delivering a lecture at the college where I teach on writers from rural, working-class backgrounds.

I picked up the newspaper on the side porch this morning to see a story about President Trump’s plan for a month of executive actions to dismantle the work of President Obama and I thought, “I’d better write to Tom; I’ve got to give him an assignment.”

Your assignment, Tom, and the assignment of everyone who has been elected or hired to serve or work for our government, is to keep things stable and functional in a time of disorder.  President Trump was elected in part on a platform of disruption—to dismantle many of the structures of our government and to replace them with something else.  A lot of people around the country believed that this was an important and necessary thing to do.

So now it’s like our country is doing a massive home renovation project—we’re gutting the walls, ripping out the electric, replacing the appliances—all while we are still trying to live in the house.  Friday’s executive action gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services permission to “exercise all authority and discretion available to them to waive, defer, grant exemptions from, or delay” parts of the Affordable Care Act.  The part of the law to which this seems directed is the “individual mandate” requiring everyone to get insurance.  If that part of the law is no longer enforced, and young healthy people stop buying insurance, insurance companies will no longer get income from them, and will have to figure out some other way of remaining profitable.  In the past, they’ve done this by denying covering to people with pre-existing conditions or in other ways limiting the services that they pay for.  Our new President and members of congress like you say that there are plans to replace the law with a new and better one that will solve these problems.  Now that executive orders are being issued, you’ve got to act fast to get those new plans in place.

We’re living in this house while it’s under construction.  How are you going to make sure that our government does not devolve into chaos as the new president dismantles structures that—while sometimes problematic—are the very structures presently making things work?

I’m nervous, Tom.   Times of disruption are times when really bad things can happen.

But then I remember that I’ve got you.  You were elected by a solid majority of constituents in our district and you’re heading off to work every day to keep the government functioning.  You, unlike our new president, have experience in government.  You know how our laws work and how to get things done.  You and your colleagues are my best hope right now.  I didn’t vote for a president who wanted to disrupt the status quo.  But that’s what I’ve got.  I accept that Donald Trump is my president.  But you are also my representative to congress.

Will you promise to try, to the best of your ability, to keep chaos to a minimum during this reconstruction project?  Will you make sure that we’re not breathing in the dust from demolition; will you vacuum up the shards of glass before we step in them?  Can you make sure that the laundry gets done and dinner gets put on the table even as the appliances are put on the curb?  Can you make sure that the contractors are doing everything up to code?

Thanks, Tom.  I’m depending on you.

Write me soon.