By Claire Walla
New York Congressman Tim Bishop doesn’t seem the type to lounge around. He commutes between offices in Southampton, Patchogue and Washington D.C., and attends events across the state and across the East End, where he represents nearly 700,000 people.
But last Tuesday, October 18, Bishop sank comfortably into the cushions of a big white couch in a house off the Bridgehampton Turnpike and, surrounded by a dozen of his constituents, he began to chat.
The purpose of his visit was as part of the Bridgehampton Children’s Center’s series: “The Politics of it All.” (Past guests have included State Assemblyman Fred Thiele and County Legislator Jay Schneiderman.) And although the conversation hinged on politics, Bishop spoke candidly about his positions on all topics raised that night, from early childhood education to what he called the “repulsive” tactics of the Tea Party Movement.
While casual, the tone of the evening was relatively dour as those who attended the discussion looked to the congressman for answers to what they see as glaring inefficiencies within the U.S. political system.
Perhaps the most outspoken attendee that evening was Randall Dobler, who before he spoke distributed a five-page document titled “Randall Dobler Economic Recovery Plan.”
He asked Bishop why — especially if the United States is looking to create more jobs and lessen its dependence on foreign oil — the U.S. government is not moving faster to promote the use of natural gas as a clean energy alternative.
Bishop’s answer turned out to be the relative mantra for the evening: “political opposition.” In the case of natural gas, he said many members of Congress who have thus far been opposed to passing legislation that would give American families the economic incentive to switch from heating their homes with oil to natural gas object to the part of the proposed bill that would put a tax on carbon-based fuels. According to Bishop, they maintain that the free market economy should reign supreme.
While political opposition is nothing new in Bishop’s line of work, the assemblyman’s critique of the current political climate went far deeper than typical party spats. For example, he said there’s “no political will” among many conservative members of Congress to move away from carbon-based fuels. And then, raising the pitch of his voice in frustration, he added: “Many members [of Congress] don’t even believe in climate change!”
Bishop reaffirmed what many in the room seemed to already believe, that such fundamental differences between members of Congress have created a vast schism within government, which has steered the country to where it is now: at a relative stalemate.
After the group lamented the woes of the American work force — which event organizer Bonnie Cannon said is worrisome because it’s been flooded with many college graduates who can’t find employment — attendee Lucius Ware, head of the East End chapter of the NAACP, drew comparisons between today’s problems and the American workforce in the 1950s and 60s. The so-called “space race,” he said, “kicked the workforce into high gear.”
“This is our Sputnik moment,” Bishop agreed. “But the environment could not possibly be more adverse to get that done.”
Bishop said he is baffled by the notion that certain measures he feels would bolster the American economy — like bills to boost spending for infrastructure that would create jobs — have been shot down by Congress in large part because Republicans are unwilling to budge on the issue of raising taxes in any way, shape or form. Referencing a Republican debate back in August during which the eight candidates stated they wouldn’t even consider raising taxes $1 for every $10 of spending cuts, Bishop said, “That’s lunacy!”
“I hate to say it,” he continued, “But [the conservative right] is not about to give [President Barack Obama] a win. That sounds hopelessly partisan, but I believe it’s right.”
Bishop explained that there are currently 25 million Americans under or unemployed in the United States, and he feels there is “no chance” the conservative right will accept the president’s spending plans, which currently propose $50 million for infrastructure and $35 million for schools.
“I see intransigence on the part of Republicans,” he added. “And a total unwillingness to move [on these points].”
The group went on to discuss government cuts to early childhood education programs, including Head Start. Bishop complained that the budget passed by Congress last April included 25 percent cuts to the program. To which Bridgehampton Head Start Manager Daphne Gil, who shared the couch with Bishop that night, noted that such cuts actually have an adverse affect on the work force as a whole.
“You have to allow people to let their children go to daycare and go to school so that they can go to work,” she said.
Bishop sympathized with her complaints and said, of the cuts, “there’s not logic to it.” Bishop added that he believes these programs should be restored, and said the country needs to put more effort into bolstering math and science programs, because this, he noted, is where the future of the job market will be.
In the midst of such a seemingly bleak forecast, Cannon made an attempt to shift the discussion.
“I’m feeling a bit down,” she said with an ironic laugh. “Can you tell me there’s some light at the end of the tunnel?”
Without being specific, Bishop offered an analysis of the current political climate.
“At the root of everything is fear,” he explained. “Fear of not having a job, of not being able to send your kids to college… and that leads to resentment, resentment leads to distrust, and distrust leads to anger. And that is one of the forces at play that I think is very debilitating.”
As an antidote, Bishop said he is advocating passion; people in politics “who think we can do better.” As for how the U.S. gets to a place where passion overcomes anger, “It’s hard,” he added. “But it’s important for people to say: this isn’t the country we had in mind.”