THE NEW WEST: Demand Accountability

By on August 30, 2017

A former senator says elected officials can’t hide from citizens.

Former U.S. Senator and Ambassador to China Max Baucus sits with his friend, the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and others at a policy meeting in Washington,  D.C. (Photo: The White House)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – United States Rep. Liz Cheney is purported to live in Wilson, Wyoming. But her presence in Jackson Hole has been conspicuously scarce, at least that’s what many of her constituents say.

Despite numerous invitations to attend town hall meetings with the citizens she represents, Cheney has been a no-show, declining to look Teton County residents in the eye and listen to what they have to say.

According to the account of one person who did speak with her, the congresswoman allegedly said she “didn’t want to subject herself to any possible abusive remarks” she might receive from Wyomingites. 

It’s an attitude and a pattern of behavior repeated often this year with the congressional delegation from Wyoming, Montana and Idaho deliberately ignoring voters and instead attending meetings only sponsored by hard-core supporters and campaign contributors who tell them what they want to hear.

I’ve heard that Ms. Cheney stridently avoids returning phone calls from any media outlets she suspects will ask her tough questions. Arguably, by her actions, Cheney isn’t promoting transparency in government or accountability to the people she serves but is rather contributing to divisiveness and the breakdown of civility.

It didn’t always used to be this way. The late U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop, his retired colleague Alan K. Simpson, even Ms. Cheney’s father, former Vice President and U.S. Rep. Dick Cheney, did not brazenly brush off constituents or the media. They knew that mixing it up came with the job.

Earlier this year, just after he completed his assignment as U.S. Ambassador to China, I met with Max Baucus, who served 36 years in the U.S. Senate, the longest senate tenure in state history, topping even the legendary Mike Mansfield’s.

As I interviewed Baucus for a story in the current issue of Mountain Outlaw magazine, I asked him what triggered the rise in incivility. “I ask myself that question often,” he said. “I don’t have a good answer.”

Baucus, however, shared an observation about the old senate dining room, a place that once served as a private sanctum for senators only, where they got to know each other personally, talked candidly about their families and hardships, and related to each other as human beings.

The dining room closed down a decade ago as, evermore, senators began spending time with lobbyists, at fundraisers and party strategy sessions. The age of social media and partisan cable channels also have contributed to the bitter atmosphere.

“Part of it is on us, too,” Baucus said, meaning citizens. “If we want those in Washington D.C. to exercise more comity, citizens have got to push for it and exercise more comity themselves.”

Baucus offered a blunt challenge: Citizens need to demand accountability from elected officials. In rural states, neither should they allow members of Congress to ignore them nor should they settle for having contact only with the grunt-level staffers of a senator, governor, member of Congress or any other elected official.

Citizens, Baucus said, should demand to meet face to face with individual elected officials or, at the very least, get their calls returned. If at first they are rebuffed, be vigilant, Baucus noted. 

And if a federal or state lawmaker doesn’t give them respect, call them out in the newspaper. Don’t accept no for an answer, he said. It might require taking just a few minutes out of one’s busy life, maybe a total of 10 minutes if a constituent must make six calls to finally get through, but it makes a difference, he assures.

Contrary to the opinions of cynics, citizens wield more clout than they know. But they don’t make their clout register. They allow politicians to get off easy, he said.

Baucus smirks incredulously when he hears complaints that politicians have placed themselves beyond reach or actively evade town hall meetings.

“We are very lucky in Montana. It’s much, much easier than it would be in California or New York to reach an elected official,” he said. “I gave my personal email out to everybody. I gave out my phone number to everybody. I was totally accessible to everybody. If anybody wanted to write me a letter or call me, I was there. I made a point of responding if someone insisted I get back to them and sometimes those conversations changed my mind on issues.”

Sighing, he added, “Having said this, I’m kind of surprised, and slightly disappointed, frankly, that I didn’t get more telephone calls. I got a good number but I wanted more.”

Do the Wyoming, Montana and Idaho congressional delegates have the courage to give out their personal emails and cell phone numbers?  More importantly, do they have the stomach to get a lashing from constituents who are concerned about the direction of the country?

Baucus himself got an earful from Montanans when he helped get the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, passed into law but refused to support a single payer system or all-out universal health care coverage for all Americans.

Still, he didn’t cower. “You can’t hide from the people you represent,” he said. “If you do that, you don’t deserve to be in office.” PJH

Todd Wilkinson, editor of mountainjournal.org, has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. He is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Jackson Hole Grizzly 399 featuring 150 pictures by renowned wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen.

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