Good for Tom Reed. Even with advance warning that he was going to run into a buzz saw of opposition, he persisted. The Republican congressman from Corning waded into succeeding storms of protest at four town hall meetings on Saturday, hearing out raucous crowds, dealing with them respectfully and standing his ground.
You can agree or disagree with Reed’s positions on issues, but it’s hard not to admire his willingness to embrace the implied terms of his high office. Public servants need to consult their constituents, even when – maybe especially when – those constituents are upset. His Western New York colleagues – Reps. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, and Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo – should take a lesson.
The value of any public official’s willingness to hear out critics has only grown over recent years. As the country becomes increasingly divided, the level of anger has risen, often to the boiling point. Many factors influence that, including social media and information outlets that function more as propaganda sources than purveyors of accurate information.
In the venomous environment those influences have produced, it’s hardly surprising that some public servants stay safely, if timidly, out of the line of fire. Collins was recently very clear about that. Speaking to WGRZ, he called such meetings “useless” and said, “What you get are demonstrators who come and shout you down and heckle you. They are not what you hope they would be, which is a give-and-take from people actually interested in getting some facts.”
But Congress isn’t for the faint of heart. Anyone who seeks public office also takes on the obligation of consulting those he represents. That has always been important, but today it’s essential. It’s much too easy to remain isolated in your own information cocoon, hearing no opposition and losing touch with what your constituency actually wants from you. There is value in venturing beyond the comfort zone.
That in no way compels a member of Congress to change strongly held positions, but it does demonstrate commitment and interest in the job. It shows respect for people with different viewpoints at a time when such respect is urgently needed.
It hasn’t always been the case that political adversaries were perceived as enemies. That’s the case today, though, and while it has been that way for several years, the risks are exponentially higher in the age of President Trump. It will take the efforts of many people to guide the country out of that toxic environment, but elected officials will have to be among the leaders.
On Saturday, Reed showed that leadership. At four town hall meetings in Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, he ran into insistent, sometimes rude, crowds that were reminiscent of the conservative agitators who dominated similar meetings protesting policies of President Barack Obama.
Reed’s critics were concerned about issues including health care, the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress’ apparent unwillingness to investigate issues related to Trump, including his business and political relationships with Russia.
All are hot subjects and Reed, with advance knowledge of organized efforts to confront him, waded in. He didn’t flinch. It was a professional approach to a hard task. More than that, it was admirable.
Collins and Higgins need to follow his lead. If they are concerned about the kind of circus atmosphere that plainly can arise, they can establish procedures designed to keep the meeting under control and productive. They at least need to try.
But simply to avoid these meetings represents a failure of nerve and a misunderstanding of the job that voters gave them. In Collins’ district, voters are beginning to notice. They are calling him out.
Democracy isn’t efficient. It’s not easy. Listening to opposing, sometimes angry, constituents can be frustrating. But it’s what the job requires. Reed deserves praise for doing it.