February 9, 2012 —
The news we received two weeks ago that New York State Congressman Maurice Hinchey plans to retire at the end of his current term saddened us on two counts. It is, first, a loss for the 22nd District, which he represents. But second, and even more importantly, it is a loss for the nation.
All Congressional representatives fight to bring home the bacon, and Congressman Hinchey was no exception, with a seat on the appropriations committee that made him especially effective. Many are the fire companies, municipalities and other organizations that owe thanks to the congressman for efforts on their behalf. It was largely through his effectiveness that Sullivan County was established as part of a Rural Economic Area Partnership (REAP) Zone, which has facilitated funding for purposes ranging from wastewater plants to the proposed meat processing plant in Liberty.
But where Hinchey has had few equals is in the consistency of his championship of democratic principles in a wide array of contexts, many of them not especially glamorous, or popular, or politically advantageous, frequently when there were few others—including in his own party—willing to stand up with him.
The issue of media consolidation may sound wonky; but if only a handful of multinational corporations control everything you believe to be a fact and every opinion you read, who do you think is controlling your vote? That’s why Hinchey was a tireless opponent of media consolidation, writing, for instance, with regard to the recent Comcast/NBC merger, that it would “further limit the American people’s access to a wide array of information and broadcast content that is inherently necessary for a properly functioning democracy.”
Following 9/11, legislation like the FISA amendment act of 2008 (which allows the executive branch single-handedly to deprive individuals of their Constitutional rights) and other abuses of executive power were implemented in the name of “national defense.” Hinchey resisted the temptation to throw the rule of law out the window in exchange for physical safety, reminding us instead of the dangers posed to democracy when too much power accrues in any one branch. In testimony at a hearing in July of 2008, he said, “The Founding Fathers of this great country set up a system of checks and balances to make certain that the three branches of government did not abuse their power. They did not set up the system of checks and balances as an option but rather an obligation, which is why I consider it to be imperative to offer my voice on behalf of so many others who could not speak out of fear.”
Hinchey has also been a leading voice in seeking to mitigate the increasing control huge corporations exert over our nation and its economy. Along with Bernie Sanders, Hinchey is the author of the “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist” bill which, if passed, would forestall the need for another taxpayer bailout of the mega-banks responsible for the recent financial meltdown by requiring them to be broken into smaller, more competitive units.
Especially pertinent to our own area, Hinchey has also kept his eye on public rather than corporate welfare with regard to horizontal hydrofracking, as illustrated by his typically well-reasoned, well-researched comments in response to President Obama’s happy-face rendering of natural gas prospects in the State of the Union:
“I am disappointed… that the State of the Union address endorsed questionable estimates of shale gas reserves and overstated industry claims about job creation. Just this week, the Energy Information Administration slashed its shale gas reserve estimates by half. And given that the Environmental Protection Agency has yet to complete the first ever broad scale study on the risks hydraulic fracturing poses to drinking water, it is hard to see how the administration can make fully informed decisions on this matter at this time.
“The shale gas industry has made a habit of overstating fracking’s benefits and understating its risks. It likes to point only to economic benefits, which are mostly isolated and temporary, while ignoring a rising number of reports of broken industry promises, harm to local communities, and air pollution and water contamination…
“We cannot afford to ignore these reports. If we don’t take steps to safeguard our water resources, air quality, and public health, the harm we would suffer would far outweigh the purported economic benefits associated with fracking.”
This kind of clarity and independence of thinking, a refusal to get seduced by simple solutions or to sacrifice fundamental principles for the sake of a popular quick fix, is currently in woefully short supply in Washington, DC. We can always cross our fingers and hope that one or two of the freshman class elected this year will help replenish these assets on the House floor. But let’s face it, the odds are against us. Congressman Hinchey is truly one in a million, and we will miss him.