Gina Glantz: Congress: Take the "Hanging Out" Challenge
Driving across the country the last three weeks meant rarely hearing punditry. On occasion I scanned the New York Times and Washington Post on line. Small town papers became my news staple. Conversations along the way opened doors into lives outside the Beltway. Home now, I discover that pundit focus, beyond terrorism, is on how many Congressional seats the Democrats will lose. Clearly that also consumes Members of Congress.
Party changing and retirements signal re-election nervousness and job dissatisfaction. Not surprising since Congress seems to be all about who is doing what to whom in Washington and little about what is really happening back home.
It is time for Members to put aside pouring over poll results and resist town hall meetings that attract the most enraged constituents. It is time they sat down and read small town or city neighborhood papers and visit — unannounced – locally owned diners and the like. Members need to see first hand that decisions made in Washington are played out daily in difficult decisions made around kitchen tables. They need to be reminded that national statistics distort and what we all think about, we don’t necessarily know about.
Over the last three weeks, at locally owned establishments, we dined with a giant stuffed moose and a taxidermied buffalo that had appeared in “Dancing with Wolves.” (Sadly, we arrived at four diners with CLOSED signs in towns with as many closed stores as open ones.) We asked folks how they felt about health care reform. Almost everyone had a story to tell about someone they knew not having health care or about being so lucky that they had health care. Almost everyone said they couldn’t figure out what was going on but felt “something had to be done but Washington will probably get it wrong.”
We met a young family that had moved to a small town in fear that a potential economic collapse would happen in big cities first. They searched for a small town where there was good hunting, good schools and good neighbors. The father, a pig farmer, and his wife, a doctor, investigated Illinois but rejected it because “it has the highest rate of malpractice suits and therefore the highest malpractice insurance costs.” After four months in their new home, they decided to take their oldest out of public school because “No Child Left Behind really means every child left behind.” Hearing we were from San Francisco, the farmer said that we were probably ideological opposites. It didn’t matter because, in fact, his family concerns matched mine of years ago except I felt guilty about moving my oldest child out of public school while the farmer felt frustrated and vindicated in his view of government-run anything. If his two year old hadn’t gotten antsy, our engaging, civil conversation could have gone on and on.
Conversations become good anecdotes. The mainstream media often pick up on local stories as anecdotes. Reading about events where they happen transcends anecdotes. A county report indicated that town-by-town unemployment ranged from 9% to 25%. So much for national down ticks. A ninth grade class was featured because it collected 13,000 pencils to be sent to students in Appalachia. When was the last time a bi-partisan group in Congress thought about children in America without pencils? I learned about the Bennett Freeze, which fortunately the Obama administration reversed. Nevertheless, only 3% of Native Americans affected by the Bennett Freeze have electricity. When was the last time a bi-partisan group in Congress became enraged over Americans without electricity?
Over 30 years ago I was a District Administrator for a congressman who came home every weekend and went door to door. I am sure there are still Members of Congress who do some version of that. I suspect there are a lot more who don’t. Today, polls and demonstrations seem to drive Members’ impressions and that does a disservice to those they serve because the result is policy driven by partisanship not people.
I am not suggesting legislation by anecdote, though I prefer it to what we have now — legislation by angry mob and high profile lobbyists. I am suggesting “hanging out”, without fanfare, with constituents where they spend their time. And to do it right means to go without a trailing media. And why not have a district office staffer assigned to “hanging out” every week and reporting back to the Member. Maybe if Members shared stories, they would discover that a conservative family in Kentucky has the same desires and values as a liberal family in NY.
President Obama gets it. He obviously can’t “hang out” so from the start of his Presidency he insisted on reading ten letters a day from around the country. Maybe the White House should create a job for someone who travels around the country without fanfare and has conversations like I did. Someone who reports back to the 7:30 morning meeting to remind those in the middle of chaos that what they decide connects palpably to ordinary Americans. Such a job should be time limited because hanging out in the White House or in the halls of Congress for too long makes one beholden to the institution rather than to the people.
Who knows, maybe “hanging out” would result in civil conversations and legislative deliberations about people’s lives rather than all-consuming ideological screeching.