Zachary Baskin, 13-year-old Ballston Spa Middle School student, has an idea: “I would lean more toward the popular vote, because that’s basically why people vote.”
And he almost scored a commitment – with one small hedge – from U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, at a town hall event Thursday night.
“I could argue either side,” Tonko said, referring to Baskin’s question about whether Tonko would support moving toward the popular vote for the presidential election in place of the Electoral College. “I think I would like to go with the popular vote, but I would like to hear the debate.”
Tonko said that it might be time for Congress and citizens to go back to the nation’s founding systems and “revisit and see if they have outlived their usefulness.”
Most of the discussion, however, centered on the day-to-day issues facing Congress and leaders in Washington. During the event, which Tonko called a “community dialogue,” constituents raised a litany of concerns: a general disregard for science, a threatening of the Affordable Care Act, suggestions that protections for the LGBT community would be diminished.
But the concerns almost universally shared one thing in common: they were about what Republicans were doing or ideas they were bringing to the table. While Tonko won the support of the room of constituents for his ideas about strengthening the emphasis on science, improving the public education system and maintaining the countless social services slashed under President Donald Trump’s proposed budget, his proposals are less likely to gain traction in a Congress controlled by Republicans.
At times, the crowd acknowledged that reality.
“On every issue, the current administration disagrees with you on every one of them,” said Charles Brown, a Saratoga Springs Democratic activist. “On every one of them we talked about tonight, the president is working in an opposite direction. … How do we work through this? How does it not turn into a partisan fight.”
Tonko detailed the proposals and actions he was most concerned with – particularly cuts in the president’s budget to Meals on Wheels, after-school programs and the effort to undo insurance protections in the Affordable Care Act – but he also expressed optimism that in time his positions would win out.
“I’m a believer that true truth conquests in time,” Tonko said.
Along the way, Democrats will need to fight to protect gains already in place, he said, knocking Republicans for their inability to pass any major legislation as Trump’s 100th day in office approaches.
“You can be very busy getting nothing done,” Tonko said, drawing laughs. “But you can be very busy making sure certain things don’t get undone.”
Tonko was mostly restrained in his criticisms of Trump and Republicans. When the second questioner raised the specter of impeachment – without using the word – Tonko didn’t address the question straight on. He focused on the questioner’s observation that Trump appears willing to change his position based on TV news or the latest person to meet with him.
“I question [Trump’s] fitness, and I know there are processes and I can’t say I’m a huge [Vice President] Mike Pence fan but I know he has a steadier hand,” Jack Armitage of Latham said. “I just want to know if that's something that’s being looked at.”
In response, Tonko said Trump’s lack of “definition” on a series of issues from health care and tax reform to infrastructure development makes it impossible for him and other Democrats to begin negotiations.
“I find it difficult to even begin to think about how to negotiate with this administration,” Tonko said. “Without that definition, it’s like pushing against Jell-O; there needs to be parameters to start that process.”
Tonko said he opposes funding a border wall and hopes it doesn’t “mire” budget negotiations as Congress tries to extend funding ahead of a deadline next week. But he also looked far into the future to deeper concerns about climate change and the lack of recognition of the value and importance of science and funding research.
“What we don’t do in the moment will be passed on to generations and generations to come, generations unborn,” Tonko said. “That’s unmoral and un-American.”
He also said it was time Congress revisits its authorization for military force, arguing it needs to be looked at in the next month. But the president also needs to lay out a strategy for how it intends to engage in actions in Syria.
“We need to have a full discussion of what the strategy is,” Tonko said. “The public is owed a debate in Congress.”