Because I write to my elected officials on occasion, even (if not especially) the ones I wouldn’t vote for in a million years, I sometimes end up on their mailing lists and receive communications clearly intended for their supporters. One case in point is Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives for my congressional district in southwest Michigan. However, the nature and extent of his corporate sponsorship  makes clear that to call him “my” representative would be something of a misnomer. To call myself a “supporter” would be too.
Rep. Upton, who became chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee in 2010, sponsored eight bills in the 112th Congress (2011-12). Among the more notable of these are HR 910 (“To amend the Clean Air Act to prohibit the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency from promulgating any regulation concerning, taking action relating to, or taking into consideration the emission of a greenhouse gas to address climate change, and for other purposes”) and HR 1213, one of the 30-odd attempts by House Republicans to repeal all or part of the Affordable Care Act, a program to which Rep. Upton is vehemently opposed.
He voted in favor of HR 3803, an attempt to criminalize late-term abortions in the District of Columbia. He also voted yes on H.Amdt. 95 and HR 1076 to prohibit federal funding for Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio, respectively. But this fiscal conservative voted no on H.Amdt. 92, which would have prohibited the use of federal funds for NASCAR sponsorships. Our tax dollars at work, ladies and gentlemen.
So yeah, Fred Upton is not my people.
Nonetheless, the many critical and snarly-faced letters I’ve written to Rep. Upton over the years have earned me a place on his mailing list, and so about a month ago, I got an email from him with the subject line “UPTON OP-ED: On Healthcare, Time to Listen to the American People.” It contained an opinion piece (“In case you missed it…”) that he wrote (or that someone on his staff wrote and put his name on, whatevs) published on July 5 in the Tri-City Record, a weekly publication that is apparently the newspaper of, um, record (get it? LOLz) for the towns of Coloma, Hartford, and Watervliet, Michigan, combined population 6,000. (Don’t bother with the link. The content of the Record is accessible online only in a weird and annoying jpeg format. You can read Rep. Upton’s article here, if you must.) In it, he rails against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, whose individual mandate had been upheld by the Supreme Court a week earlier.
When I saw this email, I had to agree completely with Rep. Upton that it is indeed Time to Listen to the American People on healthcare, and I thought that sentiment was super credible coming from a guy who between July 2011 and June 2012 accepted more than a half a million bucks in contributions to his campaign and “leadership PAC” from the pharmaceutical industry, health insurers, hospitals, and other providers and whose campaign contributions from small individual donors come to a whopping 3% of his total haul for the 2012 election cycle.
And I wondered why he would run the piece in the Tri-City Record, rather than in, say, the Kalamazoo Gazette, where, you know, people might see it. Around 75,000 of his constituents live right here in Kalamazoo city limits, and there are more than 325,000 of us in the metro area. That’s half of the 6th congressional district (the fighting 6th!) right there.
But maybe it’s the wrong half. The 6th went pretty decisively (54-44) for President Obama in 2008, but in Kalamazoo County we were even more decisive: Obama whooped McCain here by 20 points (59-39). I’m sure the Record is an awesome paper and everything (although I think my high school newspaper charged more for a full-page ad in 1982), but I wonder if maybe Rep. Upton did not want his constituents in Greater Kalamazoo to see the op-ed on the chance that a few tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of us might actually want affordable health care and thus begin to heap scorn and disapproval on him for his position on ACA just a month before his primary challenge. (That primary is tomorrow, and his opponent is also a complete tool, BTW.) Maybe he was thinking he could lower the risk if he took his bold statement against ACA to a weekly paper with a small circulation and an iffy online presence.
And the more I think about it, the more I think that really, it’s win-win: He could publish the kind of strongly worded op-ed that his corporate overlords expect to see (and who might not be corrected if they assume that the “Tri-City” in Tri-City Record refers to three actual cities rather than three delightful if fairly small towns) and without the risk of pissing off large numbers of healthcare-appreciating constituents in the more populous parts of the district who probably don’t subscribe to the Record. Supporters outside the Tri-City area could be emailed directly. Genius.
Just one thing, though. If that’s the thinking, here’s a suggestion for Rep. Upton’s staff: Stop adding the email addresses of constituents who write to rip your boss a new one to his list of supporters. There are truly some things I’d rather not know about, and the craven, self-serving propaganda of the guy who’s supposed to be looking out for my interests is definitely one of them. It’s the least this guy can do for me. I mean that literally.
Rep. Upton’s “Time to Listen to the American People” essay starts off thusly:
While I certainly disagree with the Supreme Court’s opinion, it does not change the American people’s opinion that the law is unaffordable, unworkable, and still must be repealed. This law was controversial as it was being crafted and it has only grown more unpopular as its reach into individuals’ lives has grown, and threatens to expand further still.
Clearly I should have stopped right there, deleted the email, and gone about my day. But it was too late. I had to read the whole thing. And I had to respond. My letter of July 6, with a few proofreading tweaks and a couple of updates, appears below.
Dear Rep. Upton:
Re. your op-ed of July 5, “Time to Listen to the American People”:
The “American People,” of whom I am one, are not of a single opinion on the ACA. Far from it. While I could not agree more with your assertion that it is “time to listen” to us (i.e. the American People), I feel like you may need to be reminded that this means all of us, not just the ones who share the ideologies and values of your party.
Turns out, the American People are actually pretty evenly split on the question of the ACA in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision last week. And contrary to your claim that the ACA “has only grown more unpopular as its reach into individuals’ lives has grown,” I think the opposite will prove to be the case. As you must have heard at some point while you were listening to the American People, public attitudes toward specific provisions of the ACA are actually quite favorable. And as more people come to realize (through personal experience) what the ACA will mean in their actual lives, as they begin to see real improvement in their access to care, it is likely to become increasingly popular.
But I’m thinking that since it’s a presidential election year, that is precisely what you and your GOP colleagues are so afraid of: that people will like the ACA and give the credit for it to President Obama.
You and I both know that the concerns that some middle- and working-class people have about the ACA are not because the American People don’t want affordable health care. Of course we do. And we’re not seeing anything from your party that indicates that this is even remotely a priority for it. It seems pretty disingenuous of you not to mention anything about the well-financed campaigns to lobby people like you in Congress and to try to influence public opinion with the goal of building legislative and popular support for overturning the ACA. As you know, those propaganda campaigns are key players in the construction of those concerns.
Bloomberg News reports that in 2009 alone, the insurance industry gave the U.S. Chamber of Commerce $86 million to spend on “advertisements, polling and grass roots events to drum up opposition to the bill.” Those are the exact (and surprisingly candid) words of Chamber spokesman Tom Collamore, who is quoted in the article linked. But as a recipient of substantial industry money yourself, I am sure you won’t need to follow any of the links to learn about how much the powerful, moneyed interests have spent (and continue to spend) and what they are spending it on to try to defeat the ACA and turn public opinion against it. I mean, you must know where the money is going since so much of it is going to you.
There is simply no good reason to oppose the ACA that is not overtly political and ideological. If there are good reasons that are not ideological, you and your colleagues have failed to make the case. As you probably know, the ACA is actually a pretty conservative approach to the goal of widening affordable access to care. But clearly some of your GOP colleagues don’t believe that poor people have a right to quality care and/or that government should be in the business of helping to provide it. Those are purely ideological positions, of course. And just as clearly, in the eyes of many Republicans whose top priorities have little to do with what is best for those “American People” who don’t have a lot of money or power, the ACA is a project associated with President Obama, and so it must be stopped, regardless of what that will mean to — that’s right, us again — the American People.
What happens with the ACA probably won’t make that much of a difference in the lives of conservative political theorists and pundits and other people who can afford the best healthcare money can buy (including, of course, members of our own Congress, who as you well know receive superior health benefits, courtesy of the taxpayers, which you’re welcome). For them, this can be a purely political issue. But regular citizens don’t have that luxury. Many of your own constituents right here in SW Michigan have had to struggle with impossible, agonizing choices because there has been no affordable care available to them. For people like that — middle-class people, working people, American People — the ACA is a major step in the right direction and has immediate, tangible, and positive impacts in their actual lives.
Your constituents don’t have super PACs or elevators in their garages or Olympic dressage horses, nor do most Michigan residents have the best health coverage money can buy. (The ones who do have good coverage are often union members, by the way, the constituency that built this state and made it prosperous, and a constituency that you may have noticed your party and its corporate sponsors are doing their level best to destroy.) A lot of real people — actual American People, the ones you rightly insist must be listened to by the people they are paying to represent them — are struggling. One of the things that would help a lot of them right now is affordable health care.
The ACA, even as conservative and status-quo-protecting as it is, at least starts to make it possible for people to get the care they need. GOP resentment toward the president is not a good enough reason to cut off their access. In fact, it is an unconscionable reason. But I think in your heart of hearts you must know that.
Regain your soul.
It should only happen.
*According to Open Secrets: Between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012, Rep. Upton and his “leadership PAC” accepted more than $500,000 from electric utilities and the oil and gas industries, whose interests he supports tirelessly, and an additional $500K-plus from the pharmaceutical industry, health insurers, hospitals, and other providers. He’s also taken $20,000 from Koch Industries so far in this election cycle.