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Is it really so wrong to challenge politicians who block popular legislation?

Is it really so wrong to challenge politicians who block popular legislation?
The debate over how far is too far for constituents to go in confronting their elected officials is uniquely American, writes Carl Gibson

In the fall of 2011, when I lived in Mississippi, a friend of mine called me to tell me he had an extra ticket for Ole Miss’ home opener, that the seats were on the 50 yard line, and that I had an obligation to see The Grove at least once. After I arrived and we got to our seats, I noticed that US Senator Roger Wicker (R-Mississippi) was in the row in front of us, along with two women who I later learned were fossil fuel lobbyists.

I immediately tapped Sen Wicker on the shoulder, introduced myself, and asked him why he just voted for across-the-board budget cuts while major corporations like General Electric and Bank of America were getting away with paying $0 in federal taxes. Wicker stuttered and gave me a non-answer, and the lobbyists gave me a dirty look. Even my friend – a staunch Democrat – leaned over and told me, “I know he’s an asshole, but this is a football game.”

As a US senator, Wicker had to know that having an uncomfortable conversation with a constituent at a football game with more than 60,000 people in attendance was eventually going to happen, yet he still seemed nonplussed by the encounter, and I was made out to be the bad guy. Ten years later, not much has changed for constituents who want answers from their elected officials, as evidenced by recent interactions constituents have had with Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona).

Last week, immigration activists confronted Sen Sinema at Arizona State University, where she teaches a class on asking political donors for money, on her refusal to support the Build Back Better Act. The bill includes a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status (TPS)-eligible individuals, Deferred Enforced Departure beneficiaries, and undocumented essential workers, including farm workers, who have been advocating for comprehensive immigration reform for years (climate activists also demonstrated against Sinema when she ran the Boston Marathon on Monday).

When Sinema ignored them and walked into a nearby bathroom, two women with the group followed her inside, and continued making their arguments after she entered a stall and locked the door. Sinema also ignored an activist who politely approached her on a flight and asked her to support a pathway to citizenship. For the record, Sinema stated in 2019 that Dreamers “deserve a path to citizenship,” and stated in April that “senators need to hear from their constituents.

Rather than excoriate Sen Sinema for refusing to hold a public town hall for more than three years, Senate Democratic Leadership instead blasted the activists for confronting their senator in a bathroom (one of the activists defended the bathroom interaction in a Twitter thread detailing all the other unsuccessful attempts to have a conversation with their senator). Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), to his credit, refused to co-sign as the statement didn’t include language criticizing Sinema for obstructing President Biden’s agenda.

It isn’t just Sinema who has been dodging her constituents. Sen Manchin, who is also against the Build Back Better Act, hasn’t had a public town hall since 2019 (he hosted a virtual one in 2020). Recently, a group of constituents who have been unsuccessful in having a meeting with Manchin kayaked to his yacht – named Almost Heaven – to explain how the bill’s expansion of Medicare services would benefit West Virginians. Manchin remains opposed to the bill in its current form, saying he’s only in favor of $1.5 trillion in new spending (even though he endorsed a $4 trillion spending plan in January).

Sen Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has gone on the record against his two colleagues, tweeting “I do not believe 2 people are entitled to block what a majority of the American people want.” Sanders is technically correct: As I wrote last month, the bill’s most notable provisions enjoy overwhelming support from a vast majority of both Democrats and Republicans. House Democrats support the legislation, as do 48 Senate Democrats, along with President Biden. The bill could become law tomorrow were it not for Senators Manchin and Sinema, both of whom have gone back on their word and are refusing to explain themselves to their constituents.

The debate over how far is too far for constituents to go in confronting their elected officials is uniquely American, and wouldn’t happen in other countries where politicians fear the wrath of the citizenry. In France, for example, firefighters are known for lighting themselves ablaze and charging at police lines during demonstrations for better pay. In 2020, Guatemalans set their national legislative building on fire while protesting proposed austerity measures in the wake of a devastating hurricane. In this context, it seems silly to suggest that asking one of the most powerful people in one of the most powerful countries to simply do their job while they’re in a bathroom is somehow beyond the pale.

Being able to confront elected officials in public and hold them accountable is a crucial part of a functioning democracy. If citizens feel as though their elected officials can act with impunity and that having access to them is impossible, they may eventually feel cornered into choosing violence to get their point across. And at that point, any semblance of democracy is long gone. Anyone who chooses public service as a career should be prepared to interact with the public, even when it’s inconvenient for them.