My friend Bev taught me “No good deed goes unpunished,” a saying credited to Clare Boothe Luce, whose many amazing roles included outspoken Republican member of Congress in the mid-1940s.
The saying came to mind this week regarding a current Republican congresswoman, Elise Stefanik, who this week began her second term representing the wide swath known as New York’s “North Country,” which covers parts of Saratoga County and runs up to the Canadian border.
Stefanik’s good deed was posting to Facebook her opposition to gutting the investigatory Office of Congressional Ethics, which House Republicans agreed to do during a private GOP meeting.
Stefanik’s punishment? Being publicly harangued for refusing to say how she actually voted in the private meeting – a situation which she refuses to remedy by answering the question.
So, how did she vote? None of your business. And that goes double if you don’t live in her district.
My quest for an answer revealed something even more disconcerting: the futility of trying to reach any congressional representative other than your own via email. More on this in a moment.
The GOP dropped its ethics-gutting plan after President-elect Donald Trump tweeted that the Republicans have more pressing issues to worry about right now (a knock not on their goal but on their politically tone-deaf timing). Stefanik then wrote: “I strongly believe that Members of Congress should serve as a model to the public for ethical and accountable behavior. This is why I am a leader in Congress when it comes to transparency and accountability, including posting my votes publicly to Facebook and releasing my personal financial information. I oppose the ethics amendment to the House rules and believe it should be removed from the rules package. I believe there need to be reforms to the ethics process but that they should be implemented on a bipartisan basis.”
The wording implies Stefanik voted against the measure in the Republican caucus. But never assume. Despite being a self-described leader of “transparency and accountability,” Stefanik will not say how she voted.
Stefanik’s posting of votes is indeed a public service, for although congressional votes are public information, looking them up can be a pain. However, the ethics office-gutting vote didn’t take place in a public forum. It occurred during a caucus, an internal party meeting that is not subject to the rules of open government. Caucuses are where members can hash out business out uninhibited by the public. Yet other members of Congress have revealed not only where they stand on the ethics amendment, but how they actually voted.
Why not Stefanik?
The Post-Star, the daily newspaper based in Glens Falls, tried unsuccessfully to get an answer from Stefanik or her spokesman. Citizens making direct pleas and venting their frustration on Stefanik’s Facebook page fared no better. Neither did I.
Calling Stefanik’s D.C. office Wednesday morning, I immediately reached a legislative assistant who politely made it clear that she didn’t have the information and wasn’t going to ever have it; the vote took place in an internal party meeting, she said, as if that explained why her boss wouldn’t say how she voted.
OK, I said, so how do I contact Rep. Stefanik to ask her about this, or anything else? Go to Stefanik.House.Gov, she advised.
An easy contact dropdown on that website provides U.S. mailing addresses and phone numbers for Stefanik’s four offices (in Washington, D.C., Plattsburgh, Glens Falls and Watertown) as well as an option for you to send an email. Well, not you, if you, like me live outside her district.
The first thing you’re asked to do is enter your five-digit ZIP code plus those four extra numbers that zero in on your address. Doing so yielded this response:
“The zip code entered indicates that you reside outside the 21st Congressional District of New York. Due to the large volume of US mail, emails and faxes we receive, we are only able to accept messages from residents of the 21st District. If you are a resident of another district, we encourage you to use the Find Your Representative Service available at www.House.gov to learn how to contact your Representative in Congress.”
Turns out this is the standard operating procedure for members of Congress, regardless of party. And it’s reason to worry.
Sure, members of Congress must represent their constituents, but that responsibility extends beyond their district boundaries, to represent the interests of all New Yorkers, of all Americans, on broad, vital issues.
If my congress member already represents my view on a national issue, I should be able to reach others who may need to be persuaded. I don’t envy any political staffers whose task is to sort through email. But in this day and age, citizens shouldn’t have to figure out a work-around to send emails to a fax number, or to spend 49 cents to U.S. mail each message to an elected representative.
You can bet politicians are accessible to big non-district donors who help them stay in office. It should be the right of every citizen to be able to get the attention of any representative via email.
During my years in the newspaper business, I freely reached politicians and their aides via cell phone and email. This didn’t always guarantee getting an answer, but it sure made for easy access. Now, whether you’re an ordinary shmo or a member of the media, you may get nothing more than a pre-packaged Facebook post or, even worse, a tweet, without the benefit of follow-up and explanation essential to a representative democracy.