At My Congressman's Office

07/31/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated Sep 30, 2011

On Tuesday, the day after President Obama gave his explanation for what was going on with the debt-ceiling crisis, and asked people to contact their congressman, I went with others to the Champaign, Illinois office of Timothy Johnson, my representative. No one had been able to get through on the phone lines, and my friends and I thought it was important to do what the president asked of us. We thought it was especially important to show that respect to the president and the office of the presidency because the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, has shown it to neither. He's been very Jefferson Davis-like. MoveOn had put out an email saying to come to the office at noon, but when we arrived there were multiple people from other organizations. There were people with disabilities, people who lived on Social Security payments, and some people who had just come down because they couldn't get through on the phone.

To his credit, Timothy Johnson's District Aide, Dennis Graff, invited us in (about 25 people) and said he would listen to us and answer questions. He asked that we not be sarcastic or loud, a request we all welcomed.

Here is the thing about my congressman: he is a Republican, and for most of his 10 years in this office, he has been something of a moderate. He tends to hire competent people, and, in dealing with individual problems, his office is extremely efficient. This is no small thing. I am a Democrat who doesn't always vote a straight ticket, and Tim Johnson was one of the Republicans I occasionally voted for, depending on how he was voting in Washington.

We were at the office to voice our concerns about the debt ceiling, about a possible default, and to urge that Johnson vote for a plan that included raising taxes (or revenues as they are now apparently called) on the corporations and wealthiest Americans.

"That won't happen," Mr. Graff said, "he's signed that guy's pledge."


"Grover Norquist doesn't live in our district. He isn't one of Rep. Johnson's constituents," one of us said.

"But taxpayers are."

We informed him that we were taxpayers too, and we understood the necessity for taxes, we just wanted shared responsibility. Several of us said we had always considered Tim Johnson an independent thinker. Our congressman signing the Grover Norquist pledge was news. We had not thought of our congressman as a radical. We had not thought of our congressman as someone beholden to the Tea Party.

A woman, who identified herself as a kindergarten teacher, read an eloquent letter in which she spoke of her family's tradition of sacrifice for their country from the Revolutionary War through the Iraq War. She spoke of a moral code of shared sacrifice and of not abandoning constituents; she brought out the fact that our congressman had voted for what now amounts to more than a trillion dollars for both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the unfunded mandate of "No Child Left Behind," the bail-outs, and more -- thus helping create the debt he now won't deal with.

People spoke of their concern about relatives and neighbors who were dependent on social security or disability payments. "Everyone will get their checks," Mr. Graff said, and then accused President Obama of scaring senior citizens, but Mr. Graff did not have a concrete answer to how all obligations would be met if we defaulted on our own obligations. Finally he said that we have gold reserves. "Really?" somebody said. "Really? You'd be willing to give up our reserves to protect the wealthiest?"

The word "morality" was mentioned often by multiple people and it didn't really seem to translate. An hour in, what Dennis Graff said was, "what I hear you saying is that you want to soak the rich."

As you can tell, we didn't move anybody by showing up at this office. We were listened to, in that nobody had earplugs on when we were talking. But it was a fake listening; real listening requires a willingness to accept that listening is an active process, which, if done correctly, leads to movement. But we listened to each other, and that was heartening, and we started to exchange contact information -- all these people from various groups -- and this is why I urge people to go to their congressional offices this coming Tuesday at noon. If your country is going to be done in by itself, it is good to be around your fellow concerned Americans.

I called Johnson's office on Friday and ascertained that Timothy Johnson had signed the Norquist pledge so furtively even his press secretary, Phil Bloomer, wasn't aware he had signed it. When I asked Mr. Bloomer about the legality of signing and then upholding a stance on the basis of a private pledge if it interfered with the pledge to the Constitution of the United States, Bloomer said, "We knew there would be problems associated with signing that pledge." Which begs the question about why it was signed, and how our representative stands to benefit from signing and abiding by it. (Our congressman also signed a pledge only to run for two terms, and he had no problem breaking that one.)

"What do you think is going to happen?" I asked Mr. Bloomer. He replied that the Republicans had already done their job and that it might be up to the president to act on his own to save the country from default. "And then we will take it to the courts," he said, "and see if it holds up."

I said I wouldn't even ask him if that's what the Republicans want to have happen because I knew he wouldn't be able to answer me honestly.

He laughed.