Last night I attended a town meeting held by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT, District 1) in Weber County. About 70 people were in attendance. The retired generation was strongly represented. I am in my mid 40s, and there were only a few people there that were younger than me. My observation would be that representation varied directly with age through about age 82.
Mr. Bishop started out by speaking for about 15 minutes, admitting that he was attempting to hit the most popular hot button issues. He then took questions for the next 50 minutes. During the last five minutes two aides stood at the chamber door, becoming increasingly antsy while pointing repeatedly at their watches, since the congressman had another town meeting less than an hour later in Davis County.
Those Nasty Senators
In his opening speech, Mr. Bishop repeatedly expressed frustration with the U.S. Senate. This echoes a common theme among some political observers, who think that the divide between the House and the Senate has reached epic proportions, being much stronger even than partisan divisions. Mr. Bishop asserted that the U.S. Senate is the only body at any level of government that is not a majoritarian body. He contends that the body’s rules ostensibly favor minority politics, noting that any single senator can indefinitely place a hold on a bill for any reason.
The congressman expressed frustration because a number of pieces of legislation he has worked on, and that he considers to be good are stalled in the Senate. These include Associated Health Plans (would allow small employers to group together for health insurance purposes), medical malpractice caps, business tax reform, repeal of the death tax, various ‘values’ bills, and most of the budget bills.
Bishop says that Senate leadership won’t even consider addressing legislation passed by the House unless it can be demonstrated that they likely have 60 votes in favor of it. Mr. Bishop expressed frustration that it takes 60 votes to free a bill held hostage by a single senator’s hold. Reflecting his party loyalty, Mr. Bishop reiterated a couple of times that Utah’s two senators are part of the solution and not part of the problem.
Our Constitution provides only the highest level direction for the workings of the two bodies of Congress. Within those guidelines, each body is permitted to establish its own rules. The procedures of the Senate come from both official rules as well as traditions, some of which predate the founding of our nation. Senators generally demonstrate a high degree of loyalty to these rules and traditions. There is some sense that this provides for stability that many believe is essential to good government. There is also an argument that having one legislative body with some minority control helps our democratic republic work toward its goal of maintaining a proper balance between majority and minority rights.
In answer to a question about the 17th Amendment, Mr. Bishop opined (as a former history teacher and former member of the state legislature; the body that elected U.S. Senators prior to 1913) that there were serious flaws in the system for electing senators prior to the amendment. Some states went unrepresented for years due to local squabbles. People had begun electing state legislators based on whom they would support for the U.S. Senate. But Bishop carefully suggested that the 17th Amendment solution was overkill that introduced a new set of problems from which we will likely never be free. State governments now have no representation in Congress. We have two houses of representatives, so federalism has declined.
Budget and Immigration
Congressman Bishop is disgusted with problems in our current federal budgetary system. He said that each year he votes in favor of the alternative RSC budget, which is much more fiscally responsible. However the RSC budget fails each year. He then ends up voting on the budget bills that the leadership and the committees allow to come forward.
I had formulated a rather pointed question to ask regarding one of my pet peeves about runaway spending at the hands of our Republican controlled congress. I wanted to know if Mr. Bishop was doing anything to support the formation of an Office of Taxpayer Advocacy (see here), whether he supported legislation that would create searchable online databases of all federal spending (including grants and contracts—see here), and whether he supported the Truth in Accounting Act (H.R. 5129). I wanted to know specifically what he was doing to reign in expansion of big government and deal with our scandalous budget process. However, I came to realize that the brief meeting format would lead to inadequate answers. I also quickly realized that I was simply unwilling to be pushy enough to ask my question. I will write a letter to the congressman today instead.
Immigration was a very hot topic. A diversity of opinions was expressed by those present. The congressman classes the problem as two issues: national security and employment. He thinks we could easily pass a bill that deals only with the security side, but he emphasized that it would have to deal with all of our borders, not just our southern border. On the employment front, Mr. Bishop doesn’t like any of the proposals currently on the table. He thinks that any of these solutions would only make the problem worse, and that much of the point is moot anyway until we deal with the security side. So he seems to support doing border security first and then looking at resolving the employment issue once the borders are secure.
Throughout the meeting, Mr. Bishop repeatedly focused his rhetoric on federalism and pushing government functions down to their lowest reasonable level. A number of citizens stood up and asked what the federal government was doing about something or why the federal government wasn’t doing something about some issue. To me, many of these issues seemed quite local. On the majority of those questions, Mr. Bishop said that they would more appropriately be handled by state, county, or municipal governments.
“You don’t really want the federal government involved in that,” Bishop would say. Or, “The federal government has a very poor track record of its involvement in that type of program. It is far more efficiently and personably managed at the local level.”
When asked which federal department he would eliminate if he could, he replied from his viewpoint as a former school teacher and as a state and national legislator that it would be the Department of Education. He feels that the department is operating illegally in some respects, as some of its programs violate the statute that created it. He thinks the federal government has no business in primary and secondary education. “Whenever you use the government as a resource for a program, it soon becomes more of a regulatory and coercive body than a helpful body,” Bishop said. “We’re not fixing education. We’re making it worse.”
With only about 70 people, there was a surprising variety of levels of articulateness, politeness, thoughtfulness, astuteness, etc. A few just wanted to make comments. Some made comments or asked questions that were very well thought out and reflected some understanding of the issues involved. Some folks made good points, but spent two minutes saying what could reasonably have been said in 15 seconds. Some were concise and to the point. Some comments were incredibly ignorant, and some commentators were simply rude.
One woman held the rest of us hostage for five minutes of narrow minded extremist harangue, followed by a question that took three minutes just to ask. This lady voiced a wide variety of ultra-conservative as well as ultra-liberal opinions, which seemed quite odd. I guess her main criterion for forming opinions is that they must be extreme—one side or the other, it doesn’t matter. Congressman Bishop treated her with as much respect as any other commentator.
This woman, however, was not content to have said her piece. For the next half hour she kept interrupting other citizens as well as the congressman, interjecting bizarre and off the wall comments. One guy whom she interrupted very kindly said, “Ma’am, nobody interrupted you while you spoke, now allow others the same courtesy.” However, courtesy seemed to be a foreign idea to this woman. She even complained when somebody agreed with her. I began to wonder whether she was only happy when she was being rude. Eventually at least half the audience would shush her every outburst. That’s not a way to win friends to your cause.
Mr. Bishop came off as fairly down to earth. But the format of the meeting did not allow for detailed discussion of anything. Many of his answers had to be dumbed down to more or less a sound bite. He was pretty quick on his feet, but he didn’t mind saying that he didn’t know the answer to something. He asked a couple of people to give their information to one of his aides with the promise that he would get back with them on it.
I am glad I attended the town meeting. It was informative, if nothing else, to see the diversity of opinion expressed by other citizens of Weber County. Congressman Bishop came off as affable and fairly competent, even if I have some issues with his voting record and I didn’t agree with his take on some matters. Next time I attend one of these meetings, if I have a question I will strive to be one of the first to ask. Sitting back and waiting your turn just doesn’t cut it.