Saturday, April 18, 2009

Rep. Altmire (PA-4) goes to the Northland Public Library

My congressman has been going around his district this weekend having town hall meetings. His district covers the North Hills of Pittsburgh and parts of Beaver and Butler counties. All three of the regions mentioned are very conservative. Rep. Altmire is a Democrat in his second term. What follows are a summary of the meeting, then comments.

So, issues covered:

  • Homeland security reports on extremists - The Department of Homeland Security has written (distributed? I think only in summary form) two reports detailing the dangers of left-wing and right-wing domestic extremism. While there does not seem to be any questions about the identification of eco-terrorists, al-Queda/Somali attempts to recruit Muslims, anarchist or progressive black bloc types (I'm paraphrasing) etc. in the report on left-wing extremists, there seems to be considerable reaction to the report on anti-abortion bombers, gun-rights activists reiterating a claim the feds are coming for their guns, and right-wing extremists recruiting among veterans. Rep. Altmire comments that as someone who is a veteran, owns guns, and is anti-abortion, he intends to find out just how this report is being used (since he is a member of the groups that are perceived to be most targeted by this report). This is of course met with loud and repeated cries of *yes or no* and repeated questions of what is he going to do. Of course, he is being asked for this even though noone has actually read the actual report (only a summary). He also noted that this is a regularly done report, which did not seem to get the same response during prior years (of course, it could be because only one of the two reports got routine attention).
  • Fiscal spending - The well loved stimulus package. This was a nonsensical with a very vocal bloc seeming to be driven by a desire to scream out B***s***. (there was a point where Altmire stopped talking and called out one of the louder ones and called on him to yell it out a few more times so Altmire could actually discuss this.) What Altmire ended up doing was teaching what used to be called civics. Or, the Schoolhouse Rock "I'm just a bill." One of the "answer yes or no" folks was yelling this out as part of a question "Did you vote for the President's budget?" This is a non-sensical question because President's budgets do not come up for votes. Altmire pointed out that the President could propose, but budgets are debated and negotiated in Congress. In this case, starting in September 2008. There was also a lot of commentary about "voting on a 1000 page budget that they did not read." Altmire pointed out that everything was discussed and debated in the open, and there was nothing in that 1000+ page budget that every congressman/Senator had multiple opportunities to look at over the past 6 months (especially since one of the more recent reforms was blocking the ability to add to a spending measure 24 hours before votes). And all comments to that effect were, well, misleading (to put it charitably).
  • Earmarks and PAC money. Many accusations of being pushed by corrupt money. Altmire pointed out that the current congress increased transparency by requiring congressmen to attach their name to any projects that were proposed, and that all of his campaign contributions were also public record. And the challenge was to find any major campaign contributors who were recipients of a funding request (earmark). The answer is none. The only gray example (which Altmire provided unprompted) was a major corporation who already had a contract with DoD who asked for assistance on that contract. (more rounds of B***S*** while he waited for people to amuse themselves before he could answer.)
  • Big thing about attempts to block people from listening to any of the various right-wing talk shows. The Fairness doctrine was mentioned. It turns out, Altmire has for the second time, submitted a bill that prevent the Fairness doctrine from even coming up again. (and gives a reasoned argument against all such restrictions) This lead to further questions about his position on other un-proposed restrictions against right-wing talk shows.
  • Accusations of not being interested in constituent views. Mind you, this question was being raised in the middle of a town hall meeting where the Rep. in question was fully aware that this was being loaded (he had a copy of the talking points that were being distributed to those in the town hall who were more vocally opposed to him). Altmire pointed out the irony of asking that question in a forum where he was physically present getting constituent views.
This was one of those meetings that is one of those "civics in action" moments. A representative in the legislative body of one of the most powerful nation on earth, exposing himself to open criticism, and openly addressing the comments and criticism. The value of transparancy, as various attacks tended to be responded with telling people the data that the question is about is openly available. And an elected representative fulfilling the role of civics educator, teaching constituents about what the American constitution and form of government. And defending the same.

Not one of those town halls that you would see on TV. It is characterized by the organized group that was their to listen to themselves yell out "B***S***" and "Yes or no" and that came with their sheets of talking points (Rep. Altmire's staff was able to get a copy of the talking points sheets being passed around so they gave him a copy) From the copy I got, it was majoring in minors. It asked about why he moved to Western PA after being on a congressman's staff (it was written to insinuate that he is an outsider that moved here soley to be a politician He was born in Western PA, then moved here in 1998 to work for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (recognized as a Pittsburgh 40 under 40 in 2003), then was elected to the House in 2006. And it also asked about his association with a lobbying firm under investigation (they had donated money to him. None of their clients were the focus of any funding requests/earmarks by him)

The other big question was on the concept of mandatory vs. discretionary spending. Most of the federal budget is due to social security, medicare and veterans (plus defense, which counts as discretionary), with 'mandatory' being a legal term. Many in the audience did not like that, claiming that this is not mandatory (presumably meaning they want to cut social security, medicare and veterans benefits).

And in the background of the whole thing is Article 1 of the United States Constitution, the one that states that all spending and taxes is under the perview of Congress, and that Congress deliberates and decides, with the President's proposal being no more then that. You don't think about it much, but Altmire speaks like he takes it seriously, and any congressman who does take his role seriously, especially with the transparancy rules that state that earmarks have to be accompanied by the member's name and that no changes are allowed to spending for 24 hours before approval, has no business complaining about a budget that he had 6 months to discuss and deliberate as being unknown to him.

The other undertone was about Obama's background. During the democratic primary, then Senator Clinton predicted that the Republican Party, should Obama be the Democratic nominee, would run a smear campaign. And this meeting showed this, with many of the attendees whispering about Obama being a Muslem, being really from Kenya, all things that are proved false multiple times (no muslem claims Obama is a muslem, the secretary of state for Hawaii has affirmed his native birth. Note that then Senators Obama and Clinton authorized the legal brief written during the presidental primaries that supported that McCain met the constitutional qualifications for president, dispite that he was not actually born in a state of the United States.)

Probably the most disturbing thing, the cries that the effects of Article 1 of the United States Constitution were "B***S***".

[Edit: The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review account of the meeting and the Republican National Committee robocalls and talking point is here:
At town-hall meeting, Altmire insists he's a 'centrist']
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