Peace and justice activists in Virginia's Fifth District were thrilled last November when we and our neighbors replaced Congressman Virgil Goode with Tom Perriello. We got together and held a couple of meetings to discuss what we might begin talking with the new congressman-elect about. On February 17th we finally met with him. This brief report may prove somewhat useful to others meeting with their representatives and senators, and I've included links to useful materials to modify as needed and bring along to your meetings.
Congressman Perriello has thus far introduced and passed one piece of legislation, a section of the stimulus bill creating a tax credit for higher education. While tax credits may not be the ideal stimulus, backing education is a very welcome move.
Perriello has also expressed a willingness to challenge his own party on behalf of his constituents, according to his website:
"Before the final [stimulus bill] vote, Perriello bucked party leadership by requesting that the final vote be delayed until 48 hours after the bill had been posted online, to allow constituents ample time to study and understand the bill. He was one of only 18 Democrats to take this stand. In a letter sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday afternoon, Perriello said, 'I support the passage of this bill because only urgent and dramatic action can begin to close the $2 trillion contraction in our national economy, but providing for these funds does not exempt us from our responsibility to keep policy-making transparent for our constituents.'"
Of course, former Congressman Goode didn't always march to the Republican drumbeat, but his own music was worse rather than better, and his attitude toward his constituents was one of poorly disguised manipulative contempt.
So, the times are a changin. But we were unsure going into Tuesday's meeting what to expect, and were disappointed that it had taken Perriello so long to schedule the meeting with us. In addition, I had interviewed Perriello for an hour on a radio show during the campaign and had been disappointed with his apparent belief that his job, if elected, would be to support whatever President Obama decreed. I'm sure Congressman Perriello means such comments as pragmatic observations more than expressions of loyalty, but it's not clear what difference that makes in the outcome of a congress member's actions.
Five of us arrived for the meeting representing a coalition of groups, including the Charlottesville Center for Peace and Justice, People's Alliance for Clean Energy, the People United, and Code Pink. We were immediately informed that our 60-minute meeting would last 20 minutes because the Congressman had managed to schedule a radio interview. Not a good opening note. And, sure enough, our new congressman had a habit of closing discussion of issues by remarking "That's probably going to be executive-led. Which is not to pass the buck, but …." This remains the point that disappoints me and discourages me about our new representation. We don't want to be told to what extent the now misnamed "executive" creates legislation. We know the score. We want our representative to lobby his colleagues and the president on our behalf, and we know that to the extent others in Congress stand up with him, power could be returned to its proper seat on Capitol Hill.
But, putting these sticking points aside, and allowing for the abbreviated meeting, Perriello was impressively smart, informed, professional, and far more than Goode ever was, on the side of peace and justice. We went into the meeting hoping (incredibly unrealistically for an hour meeting, much less a 20-minute meeting) to touch on six topics. We put the most important one that all the groups in the coalition came together around first, knowing we might not get past it. We handed the Congressman this sheet (PDF) with specific asks on the topics of: shifting resources from wars and military to human needs, rejecting the power Bush claimed to make a war-treaty with Iraq without consulting Congress, establishing the right to organize in the workplace, creating single-payer healthcare, opposing nuclear energy and weapons, and defunding the School of the Americas.
On the topic of war and military spending, we had prepared our own talking points (PDF) but on the day of our meeting we received from United for Peace and Justice a copy of Congressman Barney Frank's proposal (PDF) for how to cut 25 percent, so we brought that too. Frank's plan is not a peace movement document. It proposes an escalation of war in Afghanistan. It accepts three more years of war in Iraq. But it also explains how much money can be saved by scaling back and then ending the Iraq occupation, and how much could be saved by ending useless but costly weapons programs. We didn't push hard for commitments from Perriello on ending wars, but his position was pretty easy to guess from his past statements and his decision to begin talking about the president.
We did point out that President Obama has proposed reducing nuclear weapons to 1,000, along with Russia doing the same. And we pointed out that ending the wars would not mean ending weapons factory jobs. I wish we'd had time to push the issue of closing foreign bases, since there's probably $130 billion there that's not going to jobs in Congress members' districts. Perriello said that he thought it would be too hard to cut any weapons this year because of the economy and members' reluctance to cut jobs. We told him about research showing how many more and better paying jobs you get from nonmilitary investment, but that didn't seem to change his calculation. The exception was nukes. Perriello said he was completely on board with reducing nukes to 1,000 if not fewer and gave us an informed discussion of the need to fix or replace the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. While we'd like to urge our representative to urge things on Washington, at least there are finally some good things in Washington that a representative from Southern Virginia agrees with. (Goode always despised spending money but not if it could hurt foreigners.) And Perriello really is informed and interested, even telling us about his friend Matt Brown who's working on the Global Zero campaign. But we did not hear any commitment from Perriello to take any particular steps to advance the nuclear disarmament agenda, possibly because we had no time.
We also brought along and gave the Congressman talking points (PDF) on Congresswoman Barbara Lee's resolution rejecting the authority of the treaty Bush made with Iraq. I'm guessing this was a long shot ask with Perriello, but we did not have time to ask it, and he directed the conversation to other items on the list.
On the topic of workplace organizing (talking points PDF), Perriello said he would cosponsor the Employee Free Choice Act. We can't take any credit for persuading him, but we can spread the good news that he was already willing to make that commitment. I hope he will also urge his colleagues to quickly bring it to a vote.
Having received that commitment as the meeting was ending, and having already discussed -- in fact the Congressman having discussed it more than we did -- the potential for jobs creation through healthcare, we asked two questions on the topic (talking points PDF) and did not get a satisfactory answer to either. Perriello said that he (like every other homo sapiens I've ever heard of) was for "universal health care" but that he was undecided about Congressman Conyers' legislation H.R. 676. This was a step forward perhaps from what he'd told me last year, which was that he would back whatever the president proposed. So we asked what we could do to persuade him of the merits of single-payer health coverage, with no time left to present any information. And the Congressman replied: "Keep doing what you're doing, pressuring me, phone calls and Emails," or words very much to that effect. We also asked if he could send a representative to a public forum on healthcare planned for Charlottesville on Monday the 23rd. He said that he could ask his staff but that he "didn't know their schedules." So, for those of you in the Fifth District of Virginia, here's something you can do at the request of your Congressman: Give him a call at (434) 293-9631 and ask him to please send a staffer to the event.
We had presented our position on nuclear energy and renewable energy to the Congressman earlier in the meeting, and he spoke very intelligently about the subject and agreed with us, but we never got to any specific commitments.
The School of the Americas was the last topic on our agenda, and we never got to it at all, but we'll be following up with more meetings, phone calls, and Emails, with far more hope than we had for Goode, albeit hope we're going to work for rather than believe in.