There were many surreal moments during the hour and fifteen minute-long conversation with Congressman Mike Bishop (R-MI8) today, starting with the fact that I had to take three hours off of work and drive two hours there and back simply to see him. Bishop, under fire from justifiably angered left-leaning constituents, has done everything he can to shut out constituent voices, and when that fails, done all he can to control the conversation.
And so, we few, we lucky few, had to trudge miles and miles across two-track roads to make it to the furthest-flung reaches of Ingham County just to meet the guy we pay to represent us in Lansing. Just 30 of us were chosen to meet with him at each of three meetings this afternoon. At my session, the first one of the day, just over half of those invited showed up. Not surprising, given the length most of us had to go to get there, or the fact that the meeting was being held smack dab in the middle of a work day. He claims the crowd control is done in order to have a cordial conversation. I think he just doesn’t want to face the music.
But we were there to make sure he paid the piper, no matter how loud we managed to play. Though the 17 of us were largely strangers, by the end of the “listening session,” we were (nearly) all playing for the same band (except for the lone supporter in the crowd), and the feeling of camaraderie was palpable.
But first things first.
I’ll do my best to give an account of what was said with my own comments. I know another person has said they are making a recording available online, but I don’t know yet where that is, or what the quality of the recording may be. At any rate, here we go.
The listening session kicked off with what was easily one of the largest topics on everyone’s mind: health care and the efforts to kill the Affordable Care Act. The anger in the room was real. Several people shared their stories to talk about what they personally had to lose if the ACA was repealed.
One spoke of a friend with ovarian cancer who is in a life-or-death situation if the provision for pre-existing conditions is stripped away. Bishop was not asked if he supported coverage for pre-existing conditions, but how he would pay for that coverage. He couldn’t provide a solid answer. The problem with repealing the ACA is that the mandate, which makes everyone pay into the insurance pool, makes health care coverage affordable for people with pre-existing conditions. With that mandate gone, and only people who know they need health care seeking coverage, the size of the pool shrinks and the cost of coverage rises astronomically. Republicans have no plan to solve this problem.
A retired minister highlighted another problem with the repeal of the ACA, which is the “age tax.” Namely, the ACA limited insurance companies from raising rates on middle-aged people between the ages of 45-65 (when people become eligible for Medicare) to no more than 3x the amount charged to younger people. While 3x is no great shakes, the ACA replacement plan increased that to 5x the amount. The minister walked through his own family’s budget to show how the cost of health care increase he faces would leave his family with just a few dollars left over to live on each month. Again, Bishop had little to offer.
The conversation then flowed into a discussion on tax reform, and several people suggested increasing taxes on the super wealthy. One asked Bishop why this wasn’t an option. Bishop’s weak defense: “You can’t raise taxes on the rich enough to raise enough money to solve the problem.” A woman in the room said in exasperation, “Why does it have to be all or nothing? Why can’t it be part of the solution?” Again, no good reply to that.
Another man spoke up to take Bishop to task for his vote to weaken Internet privacy protections. Bishop flat out denied that he had done this, and there was some back and forth. Here, dear reader, I have to confess that this is not my area of expertise, so I suggest you look elsewhere for better analysis on the topic. However, one attendee brought up a very salient point by saying that Bishop’s vote is suspect because he took a significant amount of money from the cable television and broadband industry.
“Money in politics erodes trust,” one woman summed up.
Another person brought up the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling, which let an unending river of money flow into politics. Bishop was asked if he would support a law (or Constitutional Amendment) to reverse that ruling, and he was noncommittal.
At this point, Bishop’s assistant tried to go around the room to give everyone a chance to speak, so the conversation became a little more disjointed.
One woman was appalled that Bishop voted to allow hunters to shoot hibernating bears, or to kill wolves in their dens. She insinuated that he had some bad environmental karma to work off, and suggested that he could do so by joining a Congressional climate caucus and working on climate change policies. The caucus only accepts members Noah-and-the-Ark style, two-by-two, one Republican paired with one Democrat at a time. She suggested that he join with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI12) who is waiting for a match. No commitment was made.
Corruption in the Republican Party
So this was a surreal episode. One woman who said that she was brought up in a Republican family said she is all but heartbroken by what the Republican party has become, and brought up corruption in the Republican party.
Bishop talked about his background as a prosecutor, which he said gave him a sort of sixth sense for rooting out what someone’s motives are. And he understands that in politics, some people (not just politicians, but lobbyists or others) may have ulterior motives. But he said that he believes that the people he’s worked with in politics, Democrat or Republican, are not corrupt.
“I simply do not see it.”
The room erupted in incredulity.
“But Trump,” we almost cried out in unity.
The corruption of the Trump family is too well documented for me to have to elaborate on here. Suffice it to say that many of us told Bishop that we do not want him to vote on any kind of tax break until we know how that tax break will benefit the president personally. And that we will know that by seeing his tax return.
Mealy-mouthed Bishop sidestepped that by saying that Trump has released other financial disclosures, and that tax returns wouldn’t tell us anything new (but they would, such as, is he even paying taxes??? Who is he getting money from???) and that he is already under investigation.
No real resolution came from the conversation, but we made it known that we expect transparency of our government. We expect our representative to hold the president accountable. And we expect him to even consider using tools such as impeachment, if that becomes necessary.
One woman said she did’t have a question so much as a comment. She said that she looks to the government to protect us, which includes protecting everything from Medicare and Medicaid to protecting our Great Lakes.
Bishop pointed out that he has been part of a bipartisan, bicameral group of Great Lakes area legislators that have been actively fighting for funding for Great Lakes preservation funding, which earned Bishop a round of thanks.
A man who is involved in scientific research at Michigan State University urged Bishop to fight for funding for science and technology research including the FRIB rare isotope facility on campus. Bishop said he has made that a priority before and would again. The man pointed out that research and development drives job creation, and therefore is an engine of the economy.
Another person urged funding for Housing and Urban Development programs (HUD is now led by former presidential candidate and erstwhile brain surgeon Ben Carson). Trump’s budget has called for $6 billion in HUD funding cuts, which would eliminate the Community Development Block Grant program.
College Tuition/Student Loans
A 20-something man made a passionate plea for Bishop to do something — anything — to contain the rising cost of attending college and to help graduates repay student loans. He pointed out that graduates are struggling to make even minimum payments, which makes it difficult for them to make ends meet, much less buy cars or houses or start a family. And that has a direct effect on the economy, by depressing the consumer spending power of a whole generation.
He also expressed dismay that U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is trying to unravel borrower protections for student loan debtors, which will only make a difficult situation worse for millions of students and graduates.
The constituent pointed out that this has been an ongoing problem for 20+ years, and no one in all that time, Democrat or Republican, at the state or federal level, has made a dent in solving the problem. Bishop offhandedly asked “What could be done?” and the constituent readily replied, “We can do what so many other industrialized countries already do, and make going to college free.”
(NOTE: There are many reasons for the rising cost of college, but one of the main ones is at the state, not federal level. Under Republican leadership, the state legislature has made anemic additions to college and university funding, often failing to even keep up with the pace of inflation. With no increase in funding coming from the state, colleges turn to students to make up the difference, sending tuition rates soaring. While I completely agree with the comment about tuition-free college, which is something my mother benefited from in Europe, we need to hold state legislators’ feet to the fire here in Michigan.)
Critique from a Social Worker
A woman who works as a social worker took Bishop to task for holding a “listening session” but failing to listen. She contrasted the listening session with the public hearing held by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality last week. At that three-hour hearing, the MDEQ simply listened to comments without rebuttal or justification.
A Friendly Face in the Crowd
The only pro-Bishop person at the table spoke up to say she likes the job he’s doing and to thank him.
Any good show needs a great finale, and this one didn’t disappoint. A woman, who had previously identified herself as a lawyer, asked Bishop why he had voted to let states defund Planned Parenthood even though the organization provides cancer screenings, contraceptives, prenatal care and other health services for both men and women.
Bishop said that 30 percent of what Planned Parenthood does is abortion, and the room went wild. The correct figure, of course, is just 3 percent. The remaining 97 percent of Planned Parenthood services have nothing to do with abortion services. And by the way, that 3 percent receives no federal funding. (Bishop walked back the statement and said he meant to say that 30 percent of all abortions are performed by Planned Parenthood. I have no idea if it’s true or not, and I’m fairly certain it’s irrelevant.)
The woman pressed Bishop, pointing out that abortion is a federally protected medical procedure. Others asked why he was using his ideology to make medical decisions for others. “Separate church and state,” someone called out.
Bishop said that there are only so many Planned Parenthood centers in the U.S., but thousands of community health care centers that could offer the same services. The woman who is a lawyer pointed out that those organizations have said that they don’t have the capacity to take on all those patients. Another woman asked why he was against women choosing their own doctors. Yet another asked Bishop if he’d ever called to make an appointment for a Pap smear at a community health clinic, and if so, how long the wait list was.
Suffice it to say, the crowd was having none of it.
And that’s about where the listening session came to an end.
I don’t know that anything was necessarily accomplished, if the goal was to change Bishop’s mind. His mind is set. The only way to change Bishop is to repeal and replace him, as far as I can tell.
But what I did see in that room, what inspired me, was how 17 people (well, 17 minus the one Bishop supporter), most of them strangers, came together with common purpose and pulled together to hold this guy’s feet to the fire. From where I say, there was a sense that we really were in this together, and that we were working toward a common goal. And that’s empowering. And that’s worth something.