I Met My U.S. Senators, and You Should, Too
What better way to engage your members of Congress than in person? A couple weeks ago, I was visiting our nation’s capital and decided — on the advice of Cindy Changyit Levin — to attend the weekly constituent breakfast that Illinois’s two senators hold in D.C. The bipartisan breakfast is a great opportunity for any Illinoisans in our nation’s capital on a Thursday morning. It doesn’t require a reservation and is an opportunity to speak to the senators in an intimate setting.
There were about twenty Illinois residents in attendance, along with scores of interns, staff, and of course Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk. The two men walked among the assembled constituents who, if they were anything like me, almost dropped their donuts and coffee when they saw the esteemed senators approaching. The senators introduced themselves to me and I desperately attempted to maintain my composure and remind myself that I was meeting public servants and not rock stars.
After introductions and chit chat, the official business began. Durbin ran the show, an old hat for a senior senator such as himself, no doubt. The senators took questions from every one of us who had them, a remarkable exercise rarely seen in today’s sound bite politics. Each senator got a chance to answer every question that was asked and their answers were revealing. The two disagreed on most of the issues that were raised but expressed their disagreement in a civil and constructive way, each making nuanced arguments in support of their position.
I asked the senators why the debate over deficit reduction being tied to the debt ceiling increase had focused almost solely on spending cuts and not revenue increases, a query I hoped would spark some lively debate between the two. Senator Durbin talked about his Gang of Six proposal that was being considered at the time and provided for the closing of tax loopholes, effectively raising taxes for the wealthiest corporations. These loophole-closing provisions, of course, didn’t end up making the final debt ceiling deal, but I was happy to see Senator Durbin speak in support of them. Senator Kirk spoke in support of job creators and the necessity to watch where you raise revenue from, to make sure you are not unfairly burdening people. He pointed specifically to the gas tax, which he called the most regressive tax you can levy. While I disagreed with some of what Senator Kirk said, he phrased his argument in a way that did not attack other ways of thinking and allowed for a nuanced approached to the deficit.
I later went to the Senate and House galleries and watched the two chambers in action, but there I saw much more pontificating and a lot less willingness for compromise and reasonable debate than I saw in the constituent breakfast. In private, both of our Illinois Senators come across as I believe they are: two people trying to do right by the citizens of Illinois the best way they know how. They don’t always agree, but the two senators clearly seemed to hear and understand each other in a way that seems rare in politics these days.
If you get the chance, I highly suggest you go to your members’ of Congress constituent breakfast. It is a great opportunity to have constituents’ voices heard and will re-inspire you in our representative government. Also, the donuts are delicious.