It’s sad when you have to go all the way to Washington to get (non) answers from your Congressmen.  

That wasn’t the sole reason that members of the Michigan Nurses Association were in D.C.  last week. Their primary purpose was to take part in the Global Day of Action to Tax Wall Street. It’s part of their Main Street Contract for the American People campaign.

After a rally and march past villains like Bank of America and Wells Fargo, the nurses went to ask Michigan’s members of Congress to put just a tiny tax on Wall Street trading. This financial transaction tax would raise billions to pay for things like, oh, let’s say, the president’s jobs bill, or avoiding the supercommittee’s possible cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. You know, priorities for the 99 percent.

Now, about that supercommittee … The nurses had some extra-special questions for Michigan’s appointees, Representatives Dave Camp of Midland and Fred Upton of St. Joseph.  

First, thank you to the nurses for inviting me along. It was truly amazing to see these patient advocates in action on that level.  

And I’ll tell you what else I saw: the same non-responses and lack of acknowledgement that the nurses and other citizens have been getting at home from these two extremely powerful men. Camp and Upton continue to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wall Street and special interests while failing to respond to requests for public town hall meetings on Main Street.  

As you may know, the Michigan Nurses Association, frustrated with the non-response from Camp and Upton, finally took to putting out radio ads and billboards to implore them to hold town halls to listen to their constituents before voting on the supercommittee. This week would be appropriate, since Congress is on break. The nurses got no response. 

During the nurses’ visits Thursday, Camp and Upton staffers explained why they haven’t had supercommittee town halls. Kind of. Here’s what they said:

Dave Camp: Calling It In

4145-davecamptext.jpgFirst, kudos to Camp’s legislative director, Rob Guido, for not lying to the group, as he famously did to other visitors recently.

Camp has not held a single town hall to talk about the supercommittee’s task of cutting $1.2 trillion since he was appointed Aug. 10, even though he had time for a forum in Utah and a fundraiser in Las Vegas.

But you see, it turns out that Congressman Camp DOES hold town halls. AHA! Mr. Guido told the group that the Camp hires a company to do robocalls to “random” numbers in the district, and the person who answers is told to hold the line for 3 minutes and then the Congressman comes on and, voila! Town hall! 

I don’t have to spell out the ways that this is NOT a town hall.  No public notice. No possibility of media scrutiny – i.e, no accountability. No live give-and-take between the Congressman and the audience.  And anyone who has worked in politics and cut such a list is welcome to start a pool on how “random” it.  Plus, good luck making it past the screener if Camp doesn’t want to answer your question.

To summarize: The Congressman controls the participants, the agenda, the questions and the messaging, and does it all essentially in secret.  Nope, these are not town halls. 

Yet when the nurses called Camp out for not responding to their request to hold a public town hall, Camp’s spokeswoman responded by saying “Those are false, misleading accusations that smear our national democracy.” 

I’m not even sure what that means. But let me say this: If our national democracy is being smeared, there’s no question of who’s doing the smearing.

Fred Upton: Democracy By Appointment

4146-freduptontext.jpgI was afraid one of the nurses might have to check Legislative Director Mark Ratner’s blood pressure during our visit. He really got worked up arguing over semantics and getting defensive about when exactly the nurses requested the town hall and saying Upton held town halls earlier this year, etc. Felt like debate club for a while there. 

And in Upton’s office, Version 2.0 of “The Congressman DOES have town halls” is “The Congressman DOES meet with constituents.” Ratner pointed out that Upton recently met back home with 12 pastors – and by recently, he presumably meant the week of Oct. 15, when Congress was also on break.

While Ratner was apparently proud of this, the nurses and I were frustrated. Upton was home, and had the opportunity to have his first town hall in months, and didn’t do it!

I’d say it’s great he met with some constituents – except that’s a key part of his job. And it’s great that the pastors relayed their concerns. Again, though – NOT a public meeting, NO media scrutiny, and participants chosen by the elected official. 

This is NOT what democracy looks like.

The Bottom Line

Two points to leave you with:

No effort:  Both Camp and Upton’s staffers said last week that they would at least give the Michigan Nurses Association an answer about the possibility of a town hall. They have not.

Neither staffer offered hope of the Congressman trying to have a public meeting in any way, shape or form. Both Camp and Upton spent more than $1 million on staff last year. I think there’s probably a staffer in there somewhere who can figure out technology. Or, as a nurse sitting next to me said simply during the Upton visit: “Skype.”

No guarantees: When asked whether cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security were on the table for the supercommittee, Upton’s legislative director said “Even the President has said that entitlements need to be addressed.” 

So, citizens should be careful about giving credence to anything that supercommittee members say in public. Everything is on the table, and they’ll blame anyone when the supercommittee fails or the ax falls on the middle class and our most vulnerable citizens.

Anyone but Wall Street.  


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