Last year I asked Congressman Jared Polis to answer some questions about politics and activism, and he was kind enough to reply. Unfortunately, I got behind on my projects and kept delaying the publication of the interview. I am pleased to make it available now. Obviously, I am aware of the fact that Polis is now locked into his next reelection campaign, so, I will pursue the possibility of asking Polis’s opponent, Kevin Lundberg, a comparable set of questions. (Incidentally, with the recent redistricting, I was drawn out of Polis’s district and into that of Ed Perlmutter.)
Over the next few days I’ll release several other interviews about activism. I have already published an interview with Melissa Clouthier about Twitter activism. Please see my “activism” category for more.
Disclaimer: Those I interview do not necessarily endorse any of my views or writings. (Nor does this interview imply I agree with Polis’s positions.)
Ari: While you’re a “Boulder Democrat,” you also show an independent streak, in that you criticized the auto bailout, you’ve attended free-market events, and you’ve suggested liberty-oriented solutions to immigration and drug policy. But obviously there’s a lot of pressure to conform to the party line in DC. In general, how much do members of Congress tend to bow to party politics, and how much to they tend to make up their own minds based on their independent research and ideological convictions?
Jared: Currently, all members of Congress are nominated by parties in their districts. In most districts, selection by the majority party is tantamount to election due to the gerrymandering. In more competitive seats, the champions of both parties battle it out in a general election.
Most behavior I see is less about towing the “party line” than it is about the fact that members of Congress are products of the districts that elect them. Members are a product of the communities they hail from, and have similar values to most members of those communities.
With resources like the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, my staff and I have access to a significant amount of independent research to help us inform decisions, but we are also avid consumers of media, as well as students of public opinion.
Ari: By the time somebody gets to Congress, many of his or her views and commitments are already set. To what degree is it worthwhile for somebody trying to advocate a set of ideas and policies to interact with members of Congress? Should they instead focus on educating other activists, the general electorate, and lower-level candidates still formulating their worldviews?
Jared: We are far from experts on every topic, so most likely if a constituent approaches us about a policy or idea it will be one worth considering. I sign onto bills frequently that are brought to my attention by constituents and that I might not know about otherwise. Obviously a visit with a member of Congress will not likely result in them changing their value system, but try to pitch the policy based on their existing value system. For instance, if the member is extremely religious, theological arguments may be most effective. If the member makes decisions based on science, use science and data in your presentation. It always helps to show how an issue directly affects a member’s constituents.
On most issues, politicians are followers of the general electorate so surely moving the general electorate is the most effective way to move elected officials.
Ari: How many letters do you receive on average during a month? How many of those does a typical member of Congress actually personally read?
Jared: I have received anywhere from 100 (slow month) to over 1,000 (in the midst of health care debate) per month. A summary of what the letters are about is prepared including a tally on each issue and presented to me weekly (including phone calls to the office and emails from constituents). If the letter has a new legislative idea or relates to something important in the district, I generally see it.
Ari: What are the best forums for somebody to interact with a member of Congress? Town halls? Letters? Phone calls? Fundraising events?
Jared: All of the above. Activists shouldn’t limit themselves. Most members will schedule a meeting with constituents who are visiting DC. Showing up at town halls and other public events can also be effective but not as much if the same person shows up at five town halls. For it to look like a movement it has got to involve different faces and voices.
Ari: What approaches and arguments work best with a member of Congress? Which ones prove ineffective?
Jared: It is best to research the member of Congress you are approaching so you understand their values and decision-making process. The wrong approach can backfire and move the member in the opposite direction.
Ari: “Public Choice” economics talks about the problem of “concentrated benefits, dispersed costs.” How do you and other members of Congress distinguish between special-interest appeals (at the cost of everyone else) and policies truly in the best interests of the country as a whole? Or is the problem intractable?
Jared: Let me know if you figure this out! One example is tax reform. The vision is that a revenue neutral reform that eliminates loopholes and limits deductions could bring would create a substantially lower, flatter and simpler income tax rate for individuals and corporations. The difficulty in getting there is that, while most people would appreciate a lower rate and not having their decisions centrally incentivized out of Washington, each one of those loopholes and deductions has its own constituency that tries to preserve it. Thus the only likely approach is all or none, once some exceptions are made for tax expenditures then it is harder to make excuses about why others are not included. Tax reform was successfully accomplished in 1986 but the tax code has grown by leaps and bounds since then.
The challenge to free market conservatives is to attack tax expenditures—the loopholes and deductions—as vociferously as they do traditional spending. Whether you’re giving someone a special benefit through the tax code or through a direct flow of cash, they’re both spending. They both come with a cost to the Treasury. Yet many conservatives insist that there’s a distinction.