By Julianne Malveaux
Congressman Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) couldn’t bring his French bulldog, Lily, on an Amtrak train. So when Amtrak funding came up for a vote, he inserted a provision that required one car on an Amtrak train to be designated a “pet car.” Pet owners will pay a fee to bring their furry companions on the train, and there are size restrictions to the pets that can travel. Still, this new provision is seen as a victory for pet owners who ride trains.
Would this new provision have been proposed had Rep. Denham’s dog not been rejected from an Amtrak train? Republican members of Congress were warned by the Club for Growth and Heritage Action, fiscally conservative groups, that they should not vote to subsidize Amtrak. Would they have joined Democrats in voting $1.4 billion a year for the next four years had their Republican colleague made his pitch about pet travel?
All too often, good legislation is only supported when someone with a personal agenda is able to add an amendment to further that agenda. Perhaps the pet cars make sense, but there might not be a pet car had not Rep. Denham pushed the agenda for his Lily. I’m not perturbed that he made the personal political. I’m just wondering what might happen if more members of Congress had to experience the same things as the rest of us.
What if members of Congress were routinely rejected from receiving bank loans (unlikely given their average net worth of more than a million dollars and rising, compared to the $81,000 median wealth of a U.S. family)? Might they then not look at some of the rules that banks use to restrict access to capital? What if members of Congress were stopped and frisked occasionally? Might that not provoke examination of stop and frisk laws?
What if members of Congress had to sleep on the street for just one night? Might they not consider the way our nation deals with the homeless? What if they had to travel hundreds of miles to obtain an essential medical service? Might they not, then, reconsider restrictions against abortion, a medical service many women consider essential? What if members of Congress had to survive on food stamps for even a week? Would that increase their empathy for those, some employed full time, who rely on food stamps in order to eat?
Let’s not stop there.
What if members of Congress were required to spend a week, without staff and handlers, in a strange community? Take House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and leave him in East Oakland, Calif. wearing a hoodie and some jeans. Take Small Business Committee Chair Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) and leave him in Fifth Ward Houston with just a few dollars in his wallet. Let Financial Services Chair Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) hang with a homie as his BFF in Ferguson, Mo. Put Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) in a housing project in Los Angeles. Let Homeland Security Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) spend a little time in New York’s Riker’s where civilization sometimes takes a break. Let Budget Chair Tom Price (R-Ga.) stand in line for a couple of hours to learn about unemployment benefits.
Will these legislators then be able to put their humanity on leave as they process their experiences?
The provision to fund Amtrak passed 316-101, and it wasn’t a perfect piece of legislation. Members of Congress ride the high-revenue Northeast corridor (Washington to Boston), so despite the warning from their influential fiscal conservative groups, they choose to continue to support Amtrak. Still, they didn’t support using revenues from the heavily traveled Northeast corridor to subsidize less-traveled routes in cities that are distant from airports.
This may mean that service in some smaller cities may be cut. Why not drop members of Congress into some of these cities and let them figure out how to get from one place to another? If we believe in the notion of a nation, we ought to have as strong an interest in the citizen in Washington as the citizen in a much smaller city. Those members of Congress who would privatize Amtrak have rejected the notion of national connections and equal access to transportation in favor of profligate profit seeking.
Members of Congress live a privileged existence. Some say they deserve it because of the service they render to our nation. But if their health care access were the same as ours, if their access to transportation were the same as ours, if their access to financial services were the same as ours, might they behave differently? If they spent just a minute with a gun pointed at their head because they had the temerity to jaywalk, if they were beaten because they dared ask questions of a police officer, if their 5-year-old child was handcuffed because she had a tantrum, would our laws be different?
Thanks to Congressman Jeff Denham, whose dog could not ride Amtrak, we know how personal inconvenience can turn into transformative legislation. If members of Congress spent a week living in a constituent’s shoes, how might our laws change?
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, D.C.