Contact!

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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,

Susan

My week and your week

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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!

Susan

What are you afraid of?

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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,

Susan

Upstream

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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,

Susan

[1] https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-cercla-overview
[2] https://www.epa.gov/superfund
[3] http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/water_pdf/wigeneseecold.pdf
[4] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/dsp_ssppSiteData1.cfm?id=0202093#Why
[5] https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/cursites/dsp_ssppSiteData1.cfm?id=0202093#Status

I’ve got an assignment for you

Photo Credit: Adam Chandler: https://www.flickr.com/photos/adamjackson/31329300996.  Licence: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode

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.

Susan

In the swamp

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Dear Tom,

It’s been a busy week for you as Congress got back into session; things are getting busy in my household too as I prepare for a new semester of teaching.

Tuesday was a really exciting day as I woke up to the news that House Republicans had proposed an amendment to a rules bill that would have taken away the independence of Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), making it answerable only to the House Committee on Ethics, run by the very people (congressional representatives) it could be investigating. Since this proposal emerged out of a private meeting and the vote on the amendment was going to happen on Tuesday afternoon, I got on the phone right away in the morning and called your Washington office. I spoke to someone there and asked that you not support the amendment. By noon, Republicans responded to some tweets by President-elect Trump and hopefully to calls from constituents like me and reversed course on this idea.

The idea of reforming how the OCE works is not all bad. I can see how letting investigations be prompted by anonymous tips could lead to trouble. I can imagine someone who wanted to take revenge on a political rival instigating a spurious investigation, further bogging down congressional work. But there are surely ways to revise the rules for this office without taking away its independence. Thanks for listening and for making the right call.

I’ve been trying to be a good citizen this week and keep track of what Congress has been up to, but the more I looked, the less clear it became. I was excited to see, on your Facebook page, that you had given a 23-minute interview on CSPAN’s Washington Journal about the “Republican agenda.” Here’s a link to the interview for those who read my blog. I sat down this morning with a cup of coffee to watch that interview and learn more about what you and your colleagues hope to do.

Sigh. In 23 minutes, you said only one specific thing—that you like the idea of “border adjustability” in the tax law of imports and exports. After the show, I looked up the term and read about the pros and cons of this idea (if I’ve understood it rightly, it means exempting exports from taxes while taxing imports). That sounds like something that would help American manufacturers while it would be very unpopular with big-box chain retailers like Walmart and Target whose business model relies on cheap imported goods. I appreciate your introducing me to the term so that I can follow discussions of this issue.

In the rest of the interview, though, any time you were asked to say something specific, you reverted to broad, vague talking points. I was grudgingly impressed with your ability to do this. It can’t be easy to maintain your composure and keep veering away from saying anything specific.

You were asked about your role as a “vice-chair” of President-Elect Trump’s transition team and you gave a vague answer about the “process going well” and “hitting the ground running”; you were asked about repealing the Affordable Care Act and what the Republicans had in mind to replace it and you gave a vague answer about “a lot of debate; a  lot of leaders” and having “open and honest debate.” You were asked about the CIA’s insistence that Russia sought to influence the last election and you gave a vague answer about the appropriateness of President-Elect Trump questioning the work of our intelligence service.

I was disappointed with the host, Bill Scanlon, for not pushing you harder. He asked you to give specifics a couple of times, but didn’t press you to actually do so. I can guess why you don’t want to get specific. Anything you say could be quoted back to you as something you promised to do. And we are not very forgiving, in election campaigns, about people who change their minds. Talking specifics means that you’ll be held accountable for your ideas. Staying vague is safe.

So I feel a little stymied as an engaged citizen this week. I can watch a 23-minute interview with my congressional representative about what he did this week and learn almost nothing that I did not already know about what my government is doing or planning to do. Most crucially, I still don’t know even in a broad way what’s going to happen to the health-insurance system that many Americans now use other than that it’s going to “repealed.”

I sent you my first post-election letter on Nov. 13. It’s been 56 days and I’ve written to you six times (not counting today). I haven’t heard from you yet. I had a such a nice interaction with your office staffer on Tuesday, perhaps I’ll start calling more often. At least I’ll know that I’ve gotten through.

Talk to you soon I hope,

Susan

A gift for you

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Dear Tom,

Merry Christmas!  In our family, we celebrate not just Christmas Day but the twelve days of Christmas—keeping our house decorated and continuing to feast until Jan. 5.  Because our Christian faith is central to our lives, we want to celebrate Christmas, not as the one-day culmination of a season of shopping and partying, but as a season for reflection on the outrageous fact that the divine entered human history.

Since it’s still Christmas at our house, I have a Christmas gift for you, Tom.  Here’s my gift: I just requested the board of elections to send me a new voting application so that I can change my party registration.  I don’t remember what I indicated when I first registered to vote in New York fourteen years ago.  I probably said that I was independent if I was required to say anything at all.   But I’ve recently decided that I am going to register as a Republican.  Merry Christmas!

My friends and family will be surprised by this.  I’ve never voted Republican and when I fill out those online quizzes that test which candidate best fits my beliefs and which party’s platform most aligns with what I care about, the results seldom if ever show that I should support a GOP candidate.

But here’s the deal.  Our electoral system is messed up.  If I think about my ideal political candidate for national office, it would be a moderate person from either party who is willing to get things done by working across the aisle.  But our system has devolved in recent years so that there aren’t any moderates left.

For example, if you Tom were to move to the center on any of a variety of issues (say if you started using the language of reforming the Affordable Care Act instead of repealing it or if you admitted that your rural district with a declining population could benefit from immigration), you might find yourself facing a primary challenge from a more conservative candidate.  Someone might emerge saying that you weren’t conservative enough, and you might be defeated.

Why wouldn’t people like me, who want more centrist candidates vote to keep you in?  Why are there no centrists left in congress?  Olympia Snowe, a moderate Republican, quit in 2013 because she was so frustrated that there was no one left in the center.  One reason we don’t have moderates in congress (from either party) is that moderate voters don’t often vote in the primaries.  I’ve never voted in a political primary myself.

So this is your gift.  I’m going to register as a Republican and tell all my friends to do so too.  For people living in the 23rd district who read my blog, I recommend that we all register as Republicans.  Why not register as Democrats if that’s the party that we prefer?  Frankly, because our district is not likely to elect a Democrat.  I know we came a little close for your comfort this fall, Tom, but you still won with a fairly safe margin.  The people of this district generally prefer Republicans.  My best bet for getting a centrist candidate as my representative in Washington is to get a centrist Republican.  And I’m okay with that.

If you move to the center, Tom, I and as many of my friends as I can convince to join me, will vote for you in the primary.  Or, if you don’t move to the center, we will vote for the most moderate candidate who runs.  I know that it feels safer to stay on the right.  But is that what you really want?

Earlier this year you supported the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative which is managed by the Environmental Protection Agency and does things like fund boat inspections to control invasive species.  Someone who was very conservative might oppose that kind of thing as promoting more environmental regulation.  You, however, said in your May 2 press release that “The boat inspection program has produced positive results and encouraged the control of hydrilla in the Finger Lakes in particular. We are glad we can further these efforts and help protect our lakes.”  That sounds pretty moderate, Tom.

I wonder if you wouldn’t mind becoming more of a moderate.  Do you admire Amo Houghton, who served this district for 18 years?  He was a moderate.

If you do move to the center, I’m ready to go to the polls as a newly registered Republican and do what I can to ensure that you stay in office.  Do we have a deal?

I suspect that you’re taking some time off for the holidays since the only new press release on your website is about a plan announced last June.  Everyone needs a bit of vacation so I don’t begrudge you that.  I wish that you had more time to answer your mail, however.  It’s now been seven weeks and I still haven’t heard from you.  I’ll be expecting a reply as soon as your office gets working again in the New Year.

Talk to you soon,

Susan

Are you ghosting me?

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Dear Tom,

It’s been two weeks since I last wrote.  When I started this blog, I committed to writing to you regularly but didn’t promise myself that I would do so weekly.  Last week was finals week at the college where I teach and I had a huge pile of grading to get through.  But now that I’m almost finished with my grading, I can return to the important work of political engagement.

I had planned to write to you this week about the Genesee River watershed and the role of the federal government in helping to clean up unsafe waters, but I see that you’ve just published a press release about your plan for higher education reform.  As someone who works in higher ed, I think I’d better comment on that instead.  I’ll come back to my thoughts on water in another letter.

In the letter introducing your plan, “Our Vision for Students,”  you say that “The average cost of attending a private four-year college is quickly approaching $50,000 per year.”  You don’t cite any source for this information, and I can’t find any source that would confirm it.  However you arrived at that number, I’m wondering if you factored in the “discount rate” of colleges.  Private colleges and universities publish a “sticker price” for tuition and then deeply discount that tuition for most students (many schools have an average discount of over 50%) by offering scholarships “paid for” by the institution.

Parents and students want to be able to say that they are choosing a school with a high price but then they also want to feel that they were valued because they received scholarships.  So colleges and universities inflate their published price and offer scholarships to get closer to what families can actually afford.  When we use the “sticker price” number to talk about the price of college (a common trend in journalism on this topic), this gives an inaccurate view of the true price of college.

Since your plan is directed at “private four-year colleges” I want talk specifically about the economic climate for the private four-year colleges in your district.  You also have an Ivy League research university–Cornell–in your district, but its economic situation (with its 6 billion dollar endowment) is so different from that of the others that I’ll leave Cornell aside.

In sum, the small private colleges in your district are in financial trouble.  Western New York state is blessed with a large number of private colleges scattered throughout its hills and valleys.  The rural counties that are home to these colleges also have a declining population and high poverty rates.  These colleges are major employers in these counties yet they are dependent on their ability to attract students from other regions and even other states.  In the past, this has worked well—western New York’s colleges are excellent and have long attracted students from outside.  These colleges then supported local economies by creating jobs—both at the lower end of the pay scale with support services and at the higher end with instructors and administrators.  But after the financial crisis of 2008, fewer students are traveling to our region to attend college even as our local populations continue to decline.  The small colleges in my region are operating with budget deficits and are desperately trying to cut enough expenses to survive without compromising what they can offer students.

You are correct that the price of college is rising and you may be correct that at some large and wealthy institutions, there is waste of resources.  I have not observed that at the small local colleges with which I’m intimately familiar.  We’ve been cutting everything we can that doesn’t directly impact the student experience–and some things that do. Our salaries are lower than the national averages for peer institutions.  We’ve lost programs and had to dismiss colleagues.  Why are costs still rising?

Tom, the biggest factor for small private colleges in rising costs is actually health care.  Because our American system of health care is structured around employers paying health insurance, as health insurance costs rise, that burden gets passed on to employers.  A college is a personnel-rich environment.  We employ a lot of people and to reduce costs in our product (education) mostly means reducing the number of people helping deliver that product:  teachers and support staff.  We can’t do much of that before we reduce the quality of our work.  So my suggestion is that if you’d like to reduce the price of college, you should actually work on health-care reform.  Take what is working in the Affordable Care Act and continue to refine it and make it better—continuing to look for ways to reduce costs.

Your ideas about increasing federal financial aid through Perkins loans and Pell grants are great ones.  If colleges like mine did not have to discount our tuition so deeply because students were bringing in more financial aid, that would be a big boost to us.  Thanks for advocating for those plans.

Be cautious, however, about criticizing the small colleges in the poor rural counties in your district using the same criteria you would use to criticize Cornell.  We are in the same marketplace, competing for the same students, but our financial positions are very, very different.  And if any of the small colleges in my region goes under (not an outrageous prediction given our precarious financial situation), that will be terrible for the local economy of the town and county where that college stood.  I know you don’t want this.

As someone concerned with excess government regulation, you will probably also be concerned about the ways in which reform plans for higher education often create extra regulatory burdens.  For example, the Textbook Information Provision  of the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA) mandated that colleges tell students before they register for classes what their textbooks will cost. This has meant hours of extra work for campus stores,helping faculty make their textbook selections extra early (often before faculty have really had time to plan what they are going to teach).  These extra hours of pay go into the college budget.  And at small colleges, students don’t typically choose between sections of courses anyway.  There is only one section of Genetics or Shakespeare per semester.  Comparison shopping for courses with the cheapest textbooks isn’t something that actually helps students at small colleges.  And perversely, faculty who are rushed to choose textbooks for an early deadline may choose more expensive options because they don’t have the time to research better choices.

One more example about how well-meant regulations have raised costs for small colleges.  My institution has recently had to add a position simply to make sure that we are compliant with Title IX regulations.  Without this person, we might face serious sanctions.  I know that you understand the burden of excess regulations so I wanted you to be aware about how these can easily creep into higher-education reforms.  Please be cautious.

I’ve still got a few papers left to grade and I’m looking forward to attending Christmas concerts at my children’s school this week.  I’ve put the kids to work baking bread and cookies to give away to teachers and we’ve been enjoying having some snow on the ground.  Perhaps this is the week when we’ll pull out the cross-country skis for the first time this year and head out into our lovely local woods.

Still haven’t heard from you, Tom.  I’m waiting anxiously.  (It’s been six weeks!)  To use an expression popular with my students, are you ghosting me?

Talk to you later,

Susan

A little woozy

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Dear Tom,

I’m feeling a little woozy after a twenty-four-hour stomach bug had me in bed all day Saturday, but it looks like it’s been an exciting week for you and I decided I ought to write.  Congratulations are in order again on your appointment as a Vice Chair to President-elect Trump’s transition team.  He seems like a man who really rewards loyalty.  You showed him unwavering support during his election campaign; I can see why he would want someone like you on his team.

I don’t know yet what particular assignments he’ll give to each of the 28 or so people who were named “Vice Chairs” (I’ve been trying to find a full list but information has been spotty), but I see you’re in pretty famous company among people like Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Peter Thiel, and the President-elect’s children and son-in-law.

I hope you’ll post a press release or an editorial on your website to give your constituents an idea of what you’ll be doing in this role.  So far, my impression of the transition has been that it’s been a little rough.  I’m particularly worried about the President-elect’s phone calls with world leaders.  I’ve heard that both Taiwan and Pakistan are interpreting his messages as implying a sharp shift in foreign policy toward big players in the international scene (China and India, respectively).  I understand that a new president might take foreign policy in a new direction, but I hope he does so cautiously and in consultation with experts.

I also wanted to comment on your support for the “Midnight Rule Relief Act of 2016” –legislation that passed the House in November but seems certain to be vetoed by President Obama if it makes it through the Senate.  Tom, I must say that from this constituent’s point of view, this looks like legislative theater.  If I’ve understood it rightly, the proposed law would prevent an administration from enacting regulations during the lame-duck period of a presidential term.  Support for such an act sounds good in a press release; you get to say you are “fighting government regulation.”  But because this act doesn’t really have a chance of becoming law it doesn’t seem like a good use of your time.  I am more than a little weary of Congress not really working on positive legislation but instead on plans to stymie the other party—fruitless plans, even, like this one that simply signal a desire to stymie the other party.   I would so much rather see you putting your time and energy into finding common ground with Democrats, not just trying to block them.  Don’t misunderstand me.  I think both parties are to blame for this state of affairs.  If your opponent had been elected, I expect I would be urging him to work with the Republicans rather than trying to get in their way.

One of my purposes in writing these letters is to try to find the common ground myself.  I’m working to identify policy ideas that I think I and my neighbors could agree on.  It’s hard when I see Congress so divided and representatives of both parties acting in ways that are designed simply to frustrate the other party.  I’ll have more to say about solutions to this problem in my next letter.

By the way, this is my fourth letter to you and I still have yet to receive more than an auto-reply.  I would really like to attend one of your town-hall meetings next Saturday so I could meet you in person but all of them are an hour and a half drive from where I live.  I don’t have room in my day to make it.  I hope that you’ll hold one closer to my end of the district sometime soon.

Waiting eagerly to hear back from you,

Susan

Proceed with caution

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Dear Tom (if I may),

I hope you had a restful and celebratory Thanksgiving with friends and family.  Like my children, I had a few days off, and we hosted my husband’s parents from Minnesota.  Like many families who gathered for the holidays, we spent part of our time together in lively conversation.  One of the subjects we talked about was education.

President-elect Trump has been releasing his selections for major leadership posts in his administration and we were all very interested to learn that he has chosen Betsy DeVos for Secretary of Education.  Both my husband’s family and mine used to live in DeVos’s home state of Michigan and we still have lots of family there.  We also come out of the same religious tradition as the DeVos family—a tradition that strongly values private religious education.  I understand and feel the force of the argument for letting families use vouchers to pay for private schools or charter schools.  There is a strong tradition in America of private religious schools offering high-quality education to a diverse range of students.  Shouldn’t all children have access to that kind of education if that’s what their families want?  My oldest child attends a private religious school and I am grateful for the opportunity to make that choice.

But I also have close ties to public education.  My two younger children attend our excellent local public school.  My father served several terms on the school board in a rural school district in Wisconsin not dissimilar to some in western New York.  And when I look out my door and down the street, the evidence is everywhere of how our local school binds our community together.  From my front porch, I can see six homes that are occupied by people who are employed in or retired from the public-school system.  In rural communities like mine where there are only a few industries, the public school is a major employer as well as a source of “social capital” (if you’re not familiar with it, I highly recommend Robert Putnam’s excellent book: Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community).  In the past decade, our community voted to raise local taxes so that we could add a beautiful auditorium onto our school—a facility that we proudly use for plays and concerts.  A local church holds services there, too.

I can see why options like voucher programs and charter schools might be helpful for children and families in districts with poor public schools—where children don’t have access to high-quality education.  Or they might make sense in urban areas where there are lots of different choices for schools and healthy competition for students could help schools be their best.  But the educational reforms that work for cities might not be right for rural areas with low population.  Our local public school is one of the best things my community has going for it; I’m worried about any initiative that might take resources from this school.

So at the national level, I would urge you to work with your Democratic and Republican colleagues to think practically, rather than ideologically, about education reform.  If an initiative makes sense for your largely rural 23rd district, don’t dismiss it because it’s coming from the other side of the aisle.  If we’re heading into another shift in education policy at the national level, I hope that you’ll advocate for rural districts and make sure that districts like mine that are already strong, stay that way.  Or that you’ll work on solutions for rural districts that need a boost.

I’ve been hoping to hear back from you.  This is my third letter to you in as many weeks but I’ve only received an email auto-reply.  I see that you’ve been busy passing the “Midnight Rule Relief Act of 2016.”  Next week I’m probably going to ask you whether that was a good use of your time.

Keep in touch,

Susan

It gets harder

Photo credit to Sonja Stark at https://www.flickr.com/photos/pilotgirl/

Dear Tom (if I may?),

It’s the end of a long and tiring week and I’m trying to keep focused on this task that I set before myself: to write regularly to my congressional representative.  It seemed like such a good idea and I was full of energy and enthusiasm last week.  Now I’m sitting with a blank screen in front of me and I’m not sure what to say.

It does seem like my friends are more politically engaged than ever.  I received numerous pleas over social media this week to call your office and express my dismay over the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as chief strategist for the White House.  I didn’t make that call but I thought about it.  Would it make a difference?  Would pressure from constituents to a member of congress make a president-elect change his mind about a key leadership role?  I felt the way that I think a lot of people do in America today—uninformed.  I don’t actually know very much about Stephen K. Bannon.  If I’m going to be completely honest with you, his name hadn’t even registered with me until this week.  And I’d have to trust the instincts of a lot of hurt and angry people who are telling me that this is a huge problem.  On the whole, I do trust those people.   But I wanted to know enough about this myself before making the call.  And I didn’t take the time to thoroughly research who he is and why his qualifications or his beliefs would make him unfit for the job.

The one story this week that I did follow more closely was the one about the small city in our district that made national news after the election.  I’m sure you heard that someone in Wellsville (down at the southern end of my county) spray-painted a swastika on a Little League dugout, accompanied by the slogan, “Make America White Again.”  The image of this sign and slogan was widely distributed, reinforcing the storyline that Donald Trump’s election had emboldened people who hate people with brown skin.  There is truth to that story.  Someone full of hate chose the post-election period as a time to paint that message.  But there is another story too.  After the dugout was quickly repainted, the people of Wellsville and the surrounding area showed that many more people were appalled by that symbol and slogan.  On Thursday, a group of people, some of them close friends of mine, showed up for a candlelight vigil, testifying to their commitment to kindness—the virtue I witness daily in my neighbors and friends.  I wish I could have been there.

So my take-away this week is that political engagement is hard.  It’s hard to make phone calls and to show up to vigils.  It’s hard to keep up enough on all the information that’s swirling around to be able to act in thoughtful and informed ways.

I’m counting on you, Tom.  We’ve elected you to work full-time on this.  I can put in my two cents, but you’re the one who gets to work on legislation and has some access to people in power.  Are you troubled by the appointment of Stephen K. Bannon as chief strategist? If you are, perhaps you’ve talked to your Republican or Democrat colleagues about naming your concerns to the president-elect.  Have you considered making a statement about what happened in Wellsville?  Maybe you should go over there and have a picture of yourself taken with this sign:

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Photo credit to David Frederickson of the Buffalo News

Thanksgiving week is coming up and I get to take a few days off from work.  But my in-laws are also showing up, so I need to clean the bathrooms and sweep the kitchen floor.   A neighbor from two doors down is coming for dinner on Thursday and, after the big feast, we’ll all walk over to another neighbor’s house for pie.  What are your Thanksgiving plans?

Talk to you again soon,

Susan

Congratulations

Dear Representative Reed (may I call you Tom?),

First of all, congratulations on winning back your seat in the U.S. house of representatives in last Tuesday’s election!  You did pretty well.  149,779 people in your district (58.1%) voted for you.  I live in your district—in the far northern part of Allegany County—so I’m one of the people you’ll be representing in Congress for the next two years.

I didn’t actually vote for you.  I was one of the 107,822 people (41.9%) who voted for the guy who was running against you.  You can probably guess that if I voted for him, I probably did not vote for our president-elect.  And you would be right.  But this worries me.  Why should you be able to figure out how I voted for president?  It’s probably because I fit into a category.  Our country is really, really, divided.  The people like me, and the 149,779 people in our district who voted for you live and work alongside each other.  We are neighbors and coworkers.  But we’ve having a hard time working together, politically.

I’m pretty discouraged about what happened in the presidential election.   But I’m also energized.  I’ve decided that I need to be more politically engaged.  I need to know more about my congressional representative.  And I need to tell my congressional representative who I am and what I care about.  My big dream (and sometimes it feels like a futile one) is that we can get elected officials who represent the middle—who speak both to me and to people who are not like me.  I dream that I and my neighbors and coworkers who voted for you can work on projects that that we all care about.

I have some ideas about what those projects might be.  But I’ll save those for future letters.  In the meantime, let me tell you just a little about me and what I’ve got coming up this week.

Let’s see: what order should I put these in?  I’ll start with my deepest commitments and then move to more specially personal information.  I’m a Christian.  My belief that Jesus rose from the dead and that everything will eventually be remade is foundationally important to how I see the world. I’ve been married for 19 years and I have three children.  I’m a gardener who loves to produce food and flowers on a little plot of land—and so I care a lot about the water, the air, the trees, and the creatures in my neighborhood.  I work full-time at a private religious college.  I’m a woman.   I’m white; my ancestors came as immigrants from the Netherlands in the late 19th century. And I’m pretty well-educated, with a couple of degrees beyond college.  And you can probably guess that I’m in my early 40s.

What’s going on with me this week?  I’m doing conferences with students in my Writing 101 class because they are writing research papers.  In my other class, I’m going to be teaching Matthew Arnold, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  I’m still harvesting some bok choy and a few golden beets from the garden and waiting to see if my chickens start laying eggs.  And we’re taking one of our cats to get spayed on Friday.

What are you going to be doing this week?

I’ll write again soon,

Susan