This weekend, I attended a townhall meeting with my Congressional representative, John Culberson. Culberson is a conservative Republican and a DeLay protegy. I’m trying to be as honest and accurate as possible, but there’s no pretending that I can be objective about the guy. There’s also no pretending that I had a recording device; I’m going from notes and memory.
My most serious concern with this Republican-controlled Congress is its apparent fiscal nihilism, and Culberson didn’t do much to relieve my concerns. In his prepared remarks, Culberson spoke with concern about the budget deficit. He said that every man, woman and child in America would have to buy $144,000 worth of Treasury bills in order to close out the national debt1.
I was glad to hear a Republican address the deficit. I was also pleased that he didn’t pretend that the deficit could be closed simply by reducing waste. Culberson said that cutting off notorious pork barrel projects, such as the rainforest in Iowa, was a good idea on its own merits, but would not produce nearly enough savings to eliminate the deficit.
So how does this very conservative Republican intend to actually deal with the deficit? Beats me. During his remarks, he proposed more money for medical research, more money for the space program, more money for veterans, and more money for Houston’s transportation. He opposed a local military base closing. Most significantly, he repeatedly pitched Social Security privatization, which even Dick Cheney acknowledges will create at least $2.8 trillion in transaction costs. In two hours, with the exception of the Iowa rainforest, I don’t believe that Culberson identified a dollar that he would actually cut from the budget2. Of course, he had voted for every tax cut put before him.
a complete inability to acknowledge the costs of permanent tax-cutting and a related unwillingness to make a serious case for actual smaller government.
Rosenfeld was talking about moderate Republicans like Mike DeWine and Arlen Specter, but this rock-ribbed rightie didn’t do any better.
Having said that, there are a few nice things that I can say about Rep. Culberson.– Rep. Culberson is on the transportation subcommittee of the House appropriations committee. In questions about Houston’s transportation issues, he came off as remarkably well-informed, passionate, and fluent on the pluses and minuses of various proposals.
– Culberson never demonized liberals or Democrats. He made a quick jab at the beginning at the Houston Chronicle, but spent the rest of the time without engaging in reflexive self-pity or media-bashing. Furthermore, in the face of some argumentative and contemptuous questions, he spoke to his constituents with more respect than he was shown.
– I attended specifically to ask him in person if he would co-sponsor Edward Markey’s bill to stop extraordinary rendition. He let me explain the issue, then said that he wasn’t familiar with the subject, but would look into it. Thank heaven for small favors, I suppose, but it could have been worse.
– In response to a few pointed questions about Republican antagonism to the judicial branch, Culberson unambiguously stated that (a) he didn’t believe in impeaching judges, (b) he certainly didn’t believe that violence against judges was ever appropriate (he denied that either Cornyn or DeLay had advocated violence), and© he believed in an independent judiciary.
It could be argued that he was speaking out of both sides of his mouth. I was a little surprised to see how many true believers in “judicial tyranny”were in attendence. One woman (a civics teacher!) stood up and said that liberal judges were writing more law than the legislature, and that we were heading towards a “judicial dictatorship”. “You’re exactly right,” said Culberson. He used the phrase “judicial tyranny” repeatedly, and got fairly animated on the subject.
However, while his tone was consistent with the recent anti-judge furor, he limited the scope of his anger. He was careful to point out that he was talking about a specific set of decisions when he uses the phrase “judicial tyranny”. In particular, he was referring to “Robin Hood” court decisions in Texas that have forced richer districts to transfer locally-raised school and property taxes to poorer districts. I don’t agree with his position, but I would be selectively quoting if I left the impression that he was a real bomb-thrower.
On the other hand…– I feel pretty comfortable in saying that Culberson flatly lied in his pitch for Social Security privatization. He said that privatization would dramatically (his word) increase benefits without costing any more tax money. There’s just no way in which that’s correct. He spent the entire time without mentioning risk, clawback, or transition costs. That’s good rhetoric, but it’s not remotely honest3.
– There were two fairly detailed questions about the bankruptcy bill. Culberson said that he intended to vote for it, but didn’t seem to know much about it. He didn’t seem to be informed about the concerns raised regarding bankruptcies resulting from medical emergencies and divorce. He asked the people asking the questions to communicate their specific concerns to his chief of staff, and promised to look into them. It was pretty uninspiring to witness.
– The most contentious exchange was about the subject of gay marriage. A middle-aged woman stood up and said that she had four children, two homosexual and two heterosexual. She said that she had a hard time feeling represented by a man who had co-sponsored the Federal Marriage Amendment that would permanently declare her children second-class citizens.
Culberson’s response, to me, sounded completely incoherent. He started by saying that his hero was Thomas Jefferson, and that he answered any question about public policy by approaching it as a Jeffersonian Republican. He explained that he strongly believed in the right to privacy, and that private sexual acts were none of the government’s business. However, if the government passed laws that provide special rights for people because of their private sexual behavior, it could lead to unintended consequences. (from memory) “We have something called the equal protection clause; if we start giving priviliges to people based on their private sexual behavior, we’d have to do so for any other form of private sexual behavior.”
Before he could come up with a more dignified euphemism for “man-on-dog”, someone shouted out, “That’s a strawman. She’s not asking you to write a new law. She’s asking you not to write a law.” Culberson shifted tactics, and stated that the amendment was necessary because of activist judges in Vermont (?), Massachusetts and California. He said that these judges were denying that the basis of our law was the Bible and the Ten Commandments.
This caused a significant uproar among the liberal half of the room. But Culberson stuck to his guns, insisting that our system of law was based on English, Germanic and Roman law, which ultimately came from the Judeo-Christian fundamental law in the Bible. That was his answer, and he stuck with it.
It was a very frustrating answer. How does Culberson deal with conflicts between Jeffersonian and Biblical principals of governance? Does he realize that, following his original argument, his own amendment that limits marriage rights to heterosexual couples explicitly privileges one form of private sexual behavior? In order to reflect his commitment to the Ten Commandments, would he support a new batch of blue laws to keep the Sabbath holy?
And where was his commitment to sexual privacy when he was a state representative and Texas had anti-sodomy laws on the books?
1 It isn’t obvious where that number came from- it implies a national debt of $41 trillion, which is far too large. I might have misunderstood him. The point about T-bills is sort of an odd way to talk about the debt, since Treasury bills are a form of governmental borrowing. Purchases of T-bills by citizens won’t “close” the debt any more than purchases by Asian central banks. It’s also odd since Bush spent this week talking about how Treasury bills were worthless IOUs. Still, it got the point across.
2 In response to a question about people with AIDS who couldn’t afford their drugs, he did defend Medicare cuts. He then made a noxious reference to how “there’s a lot of political correctness in Washington”, explaining why AIDS gets as much money as it does. Yeah, Washington is full of the pawns of Big Gay.
3 Oddly, with the exception of a representative of the Young Republicans who asked how they could help sell Social Security privatization, and a question from the audience which trashed SS on the way to another point about wasteful bureaucracies, there were no questions about Social Security. There were also no questions about Terry Schiavo, Tom DeLay’s fitness to serve as Republican leader, Iraq, immigration, or the war on terrorism, except for my question about extraordinary rendition.