Sunday, February 19, 2017

Why your representatives in Congress prefer fundraisers to seeing you in town hall meetings

I happened by chance to see the following headline just the other day:
Duck and cover: More than 200 Republicans in Congress are skipping February town halls with constituents
Vice News is covering the story of a rather reclusive Congress this year, and they have provided a few details including the tidbits below:
For the first two months of the new Congress, the 292 Republicans have scheduled just 88 in-person town hall events — and 35 of those sessions are for Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, according to a tabulation conducted by Legistorm. In the first two months of the previous Congress in 2015, by contrast, Republicans held 222 in-person town hall events.
Isn't it interesting that at a high water mark in Republican history, they're proving not so fond of their constituents? Oh, wait. I think it's mutual. Vice News notes for the record the kind of rage that has appeared at town hall meetings lately, and as I did in this article, used Jason Chaffetz as an example. Chaffetz found himself shouted down by men and women demanding that he do his job. They didn't seem all that happy about his stances on immigration and health care, either.

Republicans have a solid majority in the US House of Representatives, and an edge in the Senate. Across the nation, they have trifectas in 25 states and majorities in one or both houses in many more. They have a majority of governor seats to boot. And now they have a trifecta at the federal level. They have the power, so where is all this fear coming from?

I think the problem is that Republican dominance in politics has come at a pittance in terms of cost (to them). They now can claim just 26% of voter registration nationwide (Democrats are just a bit higher at 30%). I'd say that's a gift, except for one thing. The voter purges, rampant Tweedism and big money in politics have all left the GOP deaf, dumb and blind to, and dissociated from their base. Sure, they have power now, but do they even know who they represent anymore? Did all that disenfranchisement really work, or did it just separate them from their base? When constituents start putting "lost" ads in the local paper, I think we can safely say that many Republicans (and Democrats) have separated themselves from their constituent base:



Vice News offers another aspect to the dynamics at play here:
But ultimately both parties are holding fewer in-person events to avoid unwanted viral moments. Senior Democratic lawmakers this week asked progressive favorite Sen. Bernie Sanders to reach out to activists and urge them to not protest at Democratic town halls, according to the Washington Post.
“I bet if you looked at the number of members of Congress holding fundraisers next week during recess, it would be nearly 100 percent,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the Indivisible Project. Constituents should demand that 100 percent also attend town halls, he added.
So, if they're not holding town hall meetings, they're probably busy fundraising. I guess that's because people who turn up at fundraisers have money and they have a reasonable expectation for a return on their investment. People who show up at town hall meetings are most likely not "relevant funders" in the eyes of Congress. And since town hall attendees don't usually have money to throw at their representatives, they have little reason to expect their representatives to listen to them.

When we compare voting records to the polls, we can see why there is so much hostility at the town hall meetings. Congress isn't listening to the people without money, they're listening to the other guys.

A fundraiser is a party with drinks, good food and entertainment...I mean, speeches. A town hall meeting is an adversarial confrontation with angry, hungry and tired people who've been working long weeks with little time for the family, but they sure did go out of their way to attend. I think we can guess which is more attractive to members of Congress.

I also think this is about as much as we can expect from what appears to be a permanent political class consisting of both Democrats and Republicans. They take big money from elites or organized business interests flush with cash and then they feel obligated to listen to the money over the people they claim to represent.

Here's a video with an example of what Congress is facing when they go home and host a town hall meeting, this one actually being quite civil:



At this town hall meeting, we see a room full of Christian Republicans expressing favor and support for Obamacare and even universal health care. That lady standing up even used Christian morality to bolster the argument for universal health care. Unfortunately, they're not big spenders. That video went viral and Naked Capitalism did some great analysis on the topic of universal health-care in general, and the scene captured by that video in this article, quoted in relevant part here:
The political appeal of a single-payer, universal health-care system is perhaps best outlined by Jessi Bohon, a high-school teacher who attended a raucous and often angry town hall with Republican Representative Diane Black in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, last week.
The article is well worth the read, as it's provides context for the debate and demonstrates that even conservative Republicans get behind the idea of universal health-care once it's explained in terms they understand. Jessi Bohon explained her support for universal health-care succinctly and masterfully, couching her support in the context of her religious beliefs.

Now Jessi's Congresswoman Diane Black is between a rock and a hard place. One the one hand, she needs to show that she's listening to her constituents. On the other hand...


...She has to answer to the people who paid for her last campaign and the next one.

What you see above is a screenshot I took of the output from a Chrome Plugin I use called Greenhouse. This plugin will highlight names if they're politicians. Then I can hover my mouse over the name and get their campaign finance numbers on the fly. The plugin uses data from OpenSecrets.org, an organization dedicated to following the money for any politician that they can dig up data on. Here is the OpenSecrets mission statement:
Nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit, the Center for Responsive Politics is the nation's premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. OUR VISION is for Americans, empowered by access to clear and unbiased information about money’s role in politics and policy, to use that knowledge to strengthen our democracy. OUR MISSION is to produce and disseminate peerless data and analysis on money in politics to inform and engage Americans, champion transparency, and expose disproportionate or undue influence on public policy.
I have to wonder what would have happened in the last few elections if millions of Americans were using this application while reading about politics.

Now consider again that hard place that Representative Diane Black is in. Her conservative and Christian constituents in the Red State of Tennessee have expressed clear and overt support for universal health care. Look at again at the industry list of her financial supporters, "the relevant funders":

1. Health professionals, $121,000
2. Insurance, $119,149
3. Pharmaceuticals/Health products, $90,569

Total funding for her last campaign cycle is estimated to be $1,334,513.  The top 3 industries funding her campaign provided 24% of her funding. No matter how she votes on the issue of universal health care, someone will not be happy. Odds are, Congresswoman Black will go with the money if something like that ever came to a vote in the House.

American elites and organized business interests have the money. Most of the rest of us are busy working for and buying from those same organized business interests. They keep us busy and worried with work and issues like health insurance. Then those business and elite interests use the money we pay them for goods and services they sell, to lobby for their interests, not ours. This is why I advocate for and link to non-partisan organizations like mayday.us, represent.us and opensecrets.org.

Big money in politics transcends political parties, political orientation (liberal, conservative, etc.) and permeates nearly every level of government. We're supposed to have a representative democracy, but we can't have that when big money in politics separates representatives from the people they claim to represent.
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