Today, during my last week in Washington D.C., I had the honor of meeting my Congressmen, Representative Gary Miller. As many students hope when they embark on a D.C. internship and meet their Congressmen, I learned a great deal from the meeting.
Foremost, I learned that my district needs a new Representative.
I was there to talk about the U.S. Public Service Academy, an initiative I had been working for this spring as an intern. In a nutshell, the bill for the U.S. Public Service Academy would build a civilian West Point: students from across the nation would compete to attend the Academy, where they would receive full scholarships to receive a B.A. or B.S., undergo an intensive civics curriculum, and study a public service concentration as part of a broad liberal arts education. When they graduate, they would be required to serve for 5 years in local, state, or national government, and hopefully go on to a career in public service.
I have given this description to dozens of people, Democratic and Republican, on the Hill during the internship: some were enthusiastic, and others less so, but all were courteous enough to let me finish my sentences and explain the idea properly. That is, until I met with Congressmen Miller.
Rep. Miller's tone during the meeting was as if he were angry that we "kids" -- his word -- had dared come into his office and asked him to consider the Academy. He interrupted us repeatedly and cut us off when we tried to bring up objections or clarifications to his concerns about the Academy. If he had been a stranger or acquaintance at a dinner table, I would have gotten up and left. But because he was my elected official, and I wanted to talk to him about a cause I cared about, I had to continue to sit there, in silence.
Of course, there is not rule that Congressmen need to be polite to their constituents, and it would have been okay, if disappointing, that an understandably busy representative seemed short on time. What worries me is that someone who is supposed to represent a diverse and varied group of people seemed disinclined to even listen to viewpoints that are not his own.
While I, the youngest of the group, am only 20, I've been lucky enough that I've never taken my youth to mean that I should be lectured at instead of listened to. So I was a bit taken aback that my Congressman, who -- I thought -- is supposed to listen to the concerns of his constituents, clearly didn't care to.
Each time that I started to speak, the Congressman interrupted me, again. Indeed, he cut me and my colleagues off so many times during the meeting that, when he demanded from me, "And who's going to pay for these programs?!," I sat there for a awkward moment or two before I realized he was actually going to let me speak.
"The gov-government?" I stuttered. Not my brightest moment -- but, hey, I was scared.
"No! The government doesn't pay for anything!" Rep. Miller corrected. "The taxpayers will!"
"Look," the Congressmen continued helpfully. "I won't have to pay for this -- I'm sixty. It's you kids," -- he pointed to my two coworkers and me -- "and I am going to call you kids, who are going to."
Okay, belittlement aside, I can see the Representative's point. The Academy is a substantial investment, and we don't shy away from that fact. Indeed, we make a point to try and meet with offices who are concerned about the cost of building an Academy, specifically so that we can make our case for it.
Unfortunately, every time we tried to explain to Rep. Miller why we felt the American people should invest in an institution that could potentially empower thousands of students and re-invigorate public service -- a goal that is certainly as worthy as a $7,432,000 presidential library or a $8,000,000 very controversial highway improvement project, both earmarks that the he has secured in the past few years -- the Congressman, predictably, cut us off.
Later, the irony hit me. Despite his posturing in defense of hard-working taxpayers, Rep. Miller himself is a poster child of tax lawlessness. In 2007, it was announced that he was under investigation by the FBI for falsely evoking eminent domain laws to shield his own property sales from taxes. In the first of these cases, Miller alleged that the city of Monrovia had forced him to sell 165 acres of property, a move that the city said never happened. (In fact, there's a recording of Miller asking the government to buy the land.) But by claiming eminent domain, Miller shielded his more than $10 million profit from state and federal taxes which could have eaten 31% of the profit. The money from that tax alone, incidentally, could fund full scholarships for 77 Academy students for one year.
But while the fact my Congressman is under ongoing investigation by the FBI and has since been embroiled in additional scandals certainly concerns me, my criticisms of Representative Miller stand on their own. Any elected official who refuses to take the views of his constituents seriously is no better than one who is corrupt.
And my critiques of Representative Miller are not that he did not like the idea we were presenting. My co-workers and I often hear critiques about the Academy. Indeed, we try to take these openings to explain why, despite certain drawbacks, we feel that the Academy is a worthwhile endeavor that should at least be considered.
My chief worry is that an elected official could sit in office with the idea that he need not truly listen to the views of his constituents and that he can, in fact, belittle them. Unfortunately, the truth is that Representative Miller, the incumbent Republican in a solidly Republican district, actually can: he has had little or no opposition for the last four elections. And unless a solution is found for an elections system that favors incumbents to the point of impunity, and thus promotes a sense of indifference to new views and voices, Representative Miller is right in thinking that he doesn't need to respect his constituents.