August 22, 2007

Evening with a Congressman

I was invited to join a regular roundtable event put on by the B'nai B'rith of NY each month, which focuses on politics, government, and diplomacy and often includes foreign diplomats and mission members from the United Nations. This past Wednesday they sponsored an evening with U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel, representing parts of the Bronx, Yonkers, White Plains, and Rockland County.

In preparation I did a good deal of research on Mr. Engel, hoping to find some tidbits I could focus on - how did he vote on the Protect America Act which recently rubber-stamped Bush's warrantless wiretapping, for instance. Yet I was pleasantly surprised to find a Congressman after my own heart - his voting record, the committees he's on, even his campaign finances all demonstrate a man of integrity and commitment to public service, and the more I researched the more I was looking forward to meeting him.

The evening went well, and the Congressman spoke for a little more than an hour. Since his committee assignments and some of the legislation he's sponsored demonstrate an expertise in the areas of hazardous materials and consumer protection, I asked him about the recent recalls of Chinese products. Specifically, I wondered how he and his colleagues might be able to invoke necessary consumer protection laws against the imports of a nation that owns $1.3 billion of U.S. debt and has already threatened economic retaliation on other matters. Alas, the Congressman's answer was somewhat vague and non-committal.

After the roundtable I had a few minutes to speak privately with the Congressman, and he admitted that he felt mine was the question he answered least satisfactorily. "Why is that?" I asked him. He went on to tell me that he felt the need to be intentionally ambiguous on the topic of China. The Congressman said that what many in Washington think and feel about our relationship with China is quite incendiary, and not something they like to discuss publicly. "China will be our biggest challenge" he told me,"economically, politically, and militarily."

I'm not so self-effacing that I didn't thrill a bit at hearing this - not because I'm looking forward to a showdown with China over Taiwan, energy demands, treasury bills, product safety, or trade imbalance, but rather because I've been saying that very thing for several years. To have my private assessment of a particular issue echoed by a 20-year congressional veteran serving on the Foreign Relations committee inspires in me more than a little bit of pride. Not that the threat of China's ascendancy is a some great secret, not at all, but for years as we have focused on the threats of the Middle East and ignored the threats of the Far East, I've felt we were focusing on the short game and ignoring China which is a far greater, though less immediate, danger to our prosperity.

I also had the opportunity to explain some vagaries of the English language to the Ambassador from Argentina, who wasn't entirely sure about the subtle distinctions between Democrat, Democratic, and democratic. Or rather, he understood them fully but the Americans who were using the terms incorrectly did not, resulting in a very confused diplomat. I was able to advise the Ambassador that he was likely a more proficient English speaker than the folks writing the copy that was baffling him, and that when in doubt his Excellency should continue to trust his English language education.

Sometimes I really love living in New York...

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