Editorial: Let’s not muzzle public officials

  • U.S. Rep. James McGovern speaks during a forum Feb. 12 at Smith College in Northampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Remember the time President Donald Trump didn’t politicize an appearance and confined his remarks to the occasion at hand?

U.S. Rep. James McGovern, of Worcester, doesn’t remember, either.

That’s why it was all the more galling for the Second District congressman to receive an official letter from a Small Business Administration lawyer advising him against injecting politics into a Rural Small Business Lending Roundtable on June 1, where McGovern was an invited guest speaker.

Specifically, Casey Lyons, the SBA state office counsel, warned McGovern against saying anything that would promote a political party, candidate for public office or a political group. He said he was citing a department policy that went back beyond 2016. But McGovern had never heard of such a policy before, nor had his fellow western Massachusetts congressman, Richard Neal, of Springfield.

Not that McGovern had ever tried to turn a policy meeting like the roundtable into a political event, nor did he have any intention of doing so this time.

“This is not a political rally and I certainly had no intention (of) making it into one,” McGovern said after the event, when asked why he hadn’t spoken.

But the letter rankled. Listening to the opening presentation at Greenfield Community College, his 15 minutes yet to come, McGovern left quietly with his aides, a silent rebuke that spoke volumes.

McGovern, who has been in Congress since 1997, has been a staunch advocate for small business owners. He goes on yearly tours of small businesses in his central-western Massachusetts district, including farms and craft breweries. He helped pass H.R. 747, the Promote Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act of 2017, to ease the tax burden on microbrewers, an important segment of the local economy.

He is the only Massachusetts politician on the House Committee on Agriculture, currently in the process of reauthorizing the farm bill, where McGovern stands against cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, that helps qualified people stretch their food budget and buy healthy food at farmers markets.

The first draft released in April demands a revamp of SNAP that includes a work requirement, although most people who use SNAP actually do work. They just don’t make enough money to put food on the table.

Maybe that’s what Lyons was afraid McGovern would say.

McGovern had this to say about the farm bill in February, “This is the first year I can recall the farm bill not being written in a bipartisan way.” he went on to say that it’s being written in secret and the public doesn’t know what the bill contains.

Or maybe that’s what Lyons was afraid he’d hear from McGovern.

McGovern has long advocated for an open and transparent process in legislation, citing the importance of the public knowing what policies will affect them. He could have said that President Trump, when he submitted his budget, wanted to cut the Small Business Administration by 25 percent. “That’s just a fact,” said McGovern.

Or maybe Lyons was afraid McGovern would take a page from President Trump’s playbook, recalling his infamous speech to the Boy Scouts of America in July 2017, with its end-to-end political statements that went over the heads of his teenage audience and straight to Trump’s base of supporters. “The president does that on a regular basis, turning everything into a political rally. That’s not appropriate,” said McGovern.

Lyons’ letter to McGovern seems to be part of a trend from the top down to stifle criticism of President Trump at all levels of government.

“The idea that somebody should dictate the parameters of what was acceptable for me to say is beyond the pale,” said McGovern.

We agree. Our legislators need to discuss issues in public as well as to listen to their constituents, especially in the business community. It’s from such free exchange of information and ideas that good policy emerges, even if the ideas might conflict with the thinking or policies of the president or party in power. There is a wide gray area this side of blatant political grandstanding where policy debates and discussion can, and should, take place.

Reminding a government official to stick to the topic at hand is a great message, but Lyons targeted the wrong person in McGovern. Our advice to Lyons: Send your letter to President Trump.