No one ever said it was easy to be a member of Congress. It isn’t – not if you’re doing it right, anyway.
Representing a district in the House of Representatives by definition means being guided by your own convictions while acknowledging that you also need to represent constituents who voted against you and who may have very different and legitimate ideas. It is, in that sense, a kind of balancing act that requires respect for all constituents and an openness to the possibility that some of them may have better ideas than your own. It also means being prepared to handle criticism that can be biting. It’s all part of the job description.
By that test, Tom Reed is up to the job. At a time when Republicans, in particular, are being excoriated in town hall meetings – or, like his colleague, Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, skipping them altogether – Reed shows up, takes the heat, controls the environment and, in so doing, demonstrates that he understands the requirements of the office he campaigned to hold.
Reed, R-Corning, is alone among congressmen in Western New York in holding town hall-type gatherings where he can hear from his constituents. Neither Collins nor Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, make a point of such forums. Collins says they are worthless, but it’s hard not to suspect that the Republican health care bill’s rank unpopularity and questions about his stock investments play a role in that assessment. Higgins said he regularly visits with constituents in small groups and his staff holds “Congress on Your Corner” sessions.
Reed doesn’t let the critics deter him. At his 65-minute meeting in Allegany County on Saturday, health care dominated the discussion, and many in attendance appeared to be critical, sometimes fiercely, of Republican proposals to change the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, unlike other such forums that Republicans have held around the country, the tone at this gathering was mainly civil and, at the times when the event could have degenerated into chaos, Reed stepped in to retain control. That, too, is part of the job.
It’s easy to operate from safe harbor, never allowing critics to have their say and closing yourself off from the chance either to learn something or to change someone else’s mind. But it’s a chicken-hearted way of approaching a position of great responsibility. It’s called public service for a reason, after all, and it’s hard to serve when you hold yourself separate.
The country is divided today in a way it hasn’t been in recent memory. That makes meetings such as Reed’s all the more likely to provoke rancor, but it also makes them all the more important. It is a cliché, perhaps, that communication is important, but it’s true – especially at a time when many Americans have retreated to their ideological corners, unwilling to entertain any ideas but those they already hold.
That’s a formula for continued conflict. Reed and those who attended his forum Saturday without crossing the line into verbal abuse did their district and their country a favor by demonstrating that regular contact between members of Congress and their constituents can be respectful and useful.
Other congressmen should take a lesson.