Friday, October 16, 2015

A Town Hall Meeting with Congressman Amash

I went to a town hall meeting today held by my congressman, Justin Amash, just down the road in Hastings, MI. He holds these regularly, and I've been to several in the last couple of years. I don't call myself an Amash supporter, because he and I have very different views on a lot of issues (mostly economics). Due to the heavily conservative West Michigan district where I live, that's pretty much unavoidable.

Leaving aside my disagreements on the issues, I very much approve of how Congressman Amash executes his elected office. He communicates with his constituency more than any other politician that I've ever had as a representative, or heard about elsewhere. He explains on Facebook why he votes for and against particular issues. These town halls are held several times a year, across the area that he represents, and conference call versions are held as well. He's polite to everyone, even the most strident and contentious, and is willing to engage in conversation to the extent that the format allows.

In the opening minutes of the meeting, Amash discussed the big political story of the day: the Speaker of the House. With John Boehner stepping down as Speaker, the question has been who will replace him. Amash believes this is about more than just who will be the Speaker. He wants the House to be run with more input from all its members, rather than a "top-down" approach where the leadership determines the content of legislation and puts it up for a vote. Amash is supporting Daniel Webster, because he believes that Webster will run the House differently than Boehner has. Jake Sherman at Politico wrote an excellent piece yesterday describing pretty much exactly what I heard from Amash in the town hall today, and I encourage reading it for more details.

One thing that piece doesn't cover in detail is a point Amash made about the position of Speaker. He believes the Speaker should be focused on things that affect the House as a whole, not just the majority party. The Speaker is almost always from the majority party, of course, and he's often seen as the leader of the majority. There's another position for that, though, the Majority Leader. Amash would like to see the Speaker step back from the party leadership aspects, and let the Majority Leader be the public face of the party, discussing the positions and politics. The Speaker would focus more on the process of moving legislation through the House, and any constitutional questions (such as whether the other branches of government are overstepping their authorities).

None of that sounds like a bad idea, but it also seems pretty idealistic to me. Getting input from more representatives seems like it would slow the already-glacial legislative process even further. Asking the Speaker to step above the party-line bickering sounds fine, but is it realistic? I can't say I have a strong opinion on the way the House is run, but I certainly think that it could use improvement over what's happened in the last decade or so. Perhaps Amash has the right idea, perhaps not; but any change at this point seems like a good idea.

After the Speaker issue was discussed, the floor was open for questions and comments. The very first one came from an older gentleman (and almost everyone there was older; I'm 40 and I'm pretty sure I was the youngest adult besides Amash and his staff) saying that Social Security cost of living increases were too low, and his income was stretched tight. Another question later asked how people with pre-existing conditions would get affordable health insurance, if Obamacare was repealed (as Amash and the Republicans have repeatedly attempted). In both cases, the congressman was polite and sympathetic, but basically said nothing would be done. Interesting how even in the deeply conservative West Michigan area, people find that liberal policies like universal health care and guaranteed retirement income are important enough to ask their representative about.

I had the chance to ask a question, which I used to bring up one of my least favorite political issues, the federal debt ceiling. I asked Amash why he would vote against raising the debt ceiling, which basically meant refusing to pay money that Congress has already allocated. He contested the point about "already allocated", saying that if the debt ceiling wasn't raised, the government would simply have to cut spending from that point onward. The congressman also said that he didn't believe that a failure to borrow further would be catastrophic, because incoming payments would cover the most essential expenditures (like Social Security and the military). Finally, Amash also said that he sees the debt ceiling as a tool provided from past congressional action to force the government to be fiscally responsible and balance the budget.

Unfortunately the format of the town hall didn't allow for further debate on the issue, but I don't agree with any of his responses. "Already allocated" is indeed a reasonable description, as this analysis shows: if nothing changes, the government will be $68 billion short of funds needed to cover already-scheduled expenditures from Nov 10th to 30th. (And it gets worse after that, of course.) I believe relying on incoming payments to cover "essential expenditures" would not work, for two major reasons: first, stopping "less essential" payments would have a major suppressing effect on economic activity; and second, because the Treasury can't easily choose which bills to pay (as the Washington Post pointed out back in 2013). As for using the debt ceiling as a budget-balancing tool, I can't speak for the intent of past congressional action, but I do know that the globally connected economies of today do not react well to massive reductions in government spending. One needs only look across the Atlantic to Europe (most notably Greece) to see that, and it would be even worse here if such reduction happens suddenly via a debt crisis.

Those were the major issues that were discussed. A few others came up: a farmer asking about funding for some sort of quality control act, a guy who quoted Teddy Roosevelt on immigration, a lady asking bluntly if there was any hope for a functioning government, and one guy who was adamant that the FBI should immediately arrest Hillary Clinton for treason over Benghazi. (No, really, I'm serious. And I'm afraid he was, too.) I'll say again, I'm impressed with how smoothly the congressman handles these things. He's polite, refuses to directly accuse anyone of anything, doesn't promise anything more than to have his office look into the issue, and moves on to the next comment.

My thanks to Congressman Amash for his efforts to communicate with those he represents, and my compliments on how he handles the responsibilities of the office. We may not agree on the issues, but I respect the way he does the job.

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