It didn’t take long after the 2022 election for my congressman, Rep. Pete Stauber (R, 8th District), to remind me why northeast Minnesota chose poorly in returning him to office.
And I’m not even talking here about his almost immediate betrayal of the labor movement, with my self-described “pro-union” representative voting in late November to impose a settlement on railroad workers in the face of a threatened strike while simultaneously denying them the sick leave at the heart of their struggle.
Nor am I talking about Stauber’s rejection in early December of a bipartisan bill to protect the rights to same-sex and interracial marriage, a vote prompted by the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision in June.
Rather, I am talking about a more personal experience I recently had with my congressman.
On Dec. 14, I sent Stauber a message through the National Humanities Alliance requesting that he sign on to a “dear colleague” letter being circulated by Rep. Dina Titus (D-NV) of the Congressional Humanities Caucus. As a history professor, this was a matter of personal concern to me. Titus’s letter sought “the highest possible funding amount for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to provide adequate support for advanced research, informed teaching in schools and colleges, and the preservation of cultural collections across the nation.” My message explained the important work the NEH accomplishes, and it asked that Stauber urge leadership to “hold firm on the $207 million allocated by the House” as final appropriations for the NEH were being negotiated.
Two days later, on Dec. 16, I received Stauber’s response.
“Thank you for contacting me regarding funding for arts programs,” he wrote. “You may be interested to know that in the most recent spending bill, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was funded at $180 million.”
He added – helpfully, he evidently thought – that the NEA “is a federal agency that promotes the arts in our communities.”
The response alarmed me for reasons I didn’t anticipate. I was suddenly confronted with troubling and unexpected questions. Is Pete Stauber aware that the humanities and the arts are not the same thing? Does he know that the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts are different agencies?
I wasn’t sure. After all, I had contacted him about the humanities and the NEH. My message never used the word “arts,” and it never mentioned the NEA. Yet the very first line of Stauber’s response thanked me for “contacting (him) regarding funding for arts programs,” and he then proceeded to tell me about his alleged support for the NEA. (In fact, since responding to my message Stauber voted against the bipartisan budget that funded the NEA.) His response never used the word “humanities,” and it never mentioned the NEH.
To those unfamiliar with the structure of the federal government, the NEH and the NEA might sound vaguely similar. But as I trusted my congressman would have known, they are separate and independent agencies that serve quite different functions.
I decided to follow up with Stauber, requesting further (and actually relevant) information from him, but, approximately a month later, I have heard nothing. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. As many of my neighbors in northeast Minnesota can attest, he is notorious for his non-responsiveness.
So what have I learned? Pete Stauber has demonstrated his unfitness for office in all kinds of ways over the years, but this episode revealed incompetence of a special sort.
In fairness, I should note that I disagree with my congressman politically on a lot of issues, and we certainly don’t share the same values. For example, I am committed to the principle of electoral democracy. Stauber, who signed an amicus brief in support of a Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election, is not. Moreover, I recognize scientific reality and believe we must be acting immediately and aggressively to address the climate crisis. Stauber, who drones on incessantly about protecting “our way of life,” does not.
Yet I always assumed that he at least knew what the different parts of the government were. After all, he is charged as a now third-term member of Congress with overseeing them. But I realize that I may have been mistaken.
It’s been just more than two months since the November election, and I’m already even more shaken than I thought possible.
Scott Laderman teaches history at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and is a former president of its faculty union.