Saturday, February 25, 2017

Representative Justin Amash Town Hall - Hastings, February 2017

I've been to a few town hall meetings held by my district's representative in Congress, Justin Amash, over the last few years. I remember one where no more than about a dozen people attended, and another where there were maybe fifty. Things have changed! In Hastings this weekend, a hall rated for 200 was completely filled, with several dozen more waiting outside. I arrived 15 minutes early and was still stuck near the very back - many of those who arrived later didn't get in at all.
Hard to tell, but that's Rep. Amash in the center. Getting closer for a better picture was out of the question, too crowded.
I've said it before and it's worth repeating - Justin Amash is one of the most professional, polite public speakers that I've ever seen. As a politician it's important to be polite to voters, of course, but that doesn't stop some from either losing their cool or avoiding public forums entirely. Amash consistently holds town hall meetings when he's here in Michigan, even now when the public temper is decidedly unsettled and contentious. He never gets angry with even the most inane (in my opinion) speakers, and answers everyone seriously, even when it's clear they're trying to bait him. In this town hall, scheduled for only an hour, he stayed for almost 2.5 hours so more people had an opportunity to speak. I greatly respect the way he goes about doing his job.

Having said that, I certainly don't agree with a lot of his policy positions, and judging from this town hall I'm far from alone. You expect opposition at public forums, of course...those who disagree are more interested in being heard by their representative than those who are happy with how things are going. But in the past town halls that I've attended, when comments about conservative hot topics (repealing the ACA aka Obamacare, environmental regulation rollbacks, balanced budget amendment, etc) came up, most people clapped and otherwise expressed support. This time, there were a whole lot of boos for those kinds of topics, and a lot of support for what are generally considered liberal positions (expanding Medicaid, federal oversight/support for schools, etc).
This is what it looked like from the entryway just before start time. There's more people behind who can't get in, and the police were turning away more at the door.
A lot of the speakers were clearly interested mostly in venting, going on for minutes at a time about one particular aspect or another of an issue. Topics ranged widely, but a few issues came up repeatedly: health care, education, environmental regulation, and inquiries into the behavior of the current administration. Everything I heard from Amash on these topics was pretty much what I expected based on what he's said on social media and in the news. One thing that does deserve special mention is that he supports independent inquiries into ethical issues, such as conflicts of interest in the administration.

Time after time in his answers, Amash expressed his belief that the federal government should pull back from direct involvement, and instead allow the state/local governments and/or free market to work. This was not a popular position, to put it mildly. I suspect part of that may be the ineptitude of our state government here in Michigan, incapable of fixing roads and presiding over disasters like the Flint lead-water debacle.

Even more than simply not trusting our state government, though, I think there's an underlying assumption about human nature that differs between Amash (and many conservatives) and the town hall crowd (and many liberals). If you believe that authorities will deal fairly with everyone in their domain (regardless of race/religion/sexual preference/social status/etc) then the idea of pushing control down to state/local levels makes a lot of sense. It minimizes overhead and bureaucratic waste, provides opportunity for diversity based on different local preferences, and follows the principals of limited government. On the other hand, if you believe authorities will play favorites, doling out benefits to certain groups and refusing to address the issues of others, then it makes much more sense to have a strong central leadership that can ensure equal treatment. I definitely fall into the latter group, and while our federal government leaves much to be desired in terms of maintaining equality, it's better than some of the things we see state and local governments doing.

(Edit: I've gotten several replies to the above paragraph which are along the lines of "why do you think a strong central authority is better for equal treatment than smaller local authorities?" My belief is that the wider and more diverse the constituency that the authority must answer to, the better that authority will be at providing equal treatment. In the long run, at least - certainly not every individual election bears that out, as we saw last year. I'm not saying that the federal government is inherently any better than state or local authorities, but it is more likely to have the best interests of the most people in mind since more people have a say in its makeup.)

I'd like to thank Representative Amash for spending his time to conduct these town hall meetings. A lot of politicians pay lip service to the idea of listening to their constituents, but Amash is one of the few who actually does it on a regular basis.

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