Commentary

Editor’s column: Grading congressional newsletters

November 17, 2021 9:38 am
U.S. Capitol. Photo by Russ Rohde/Getty Images

U.S. Capitol. Photo by Russ Rohde/Getty Images

I spend a lot of time thinking and talking and writing about the Tennessee General Assembly because too few news outlets in our state have the resources or capacity to do the same, and I figure, larger outlets than this one do have the means to check on our federal delegation. 

But a few months ago I decided to sign up for the newsletters sent by each member of Tennessee’s congressional delegation. I already subscribed to U.S. Rep. Mark Green’s, as he serves my district, and I thought I could stand to learn what federal priorities are in other parts of the Volunteer State. 

If constituent newsletters were a school homework assignment, Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais of the 4th District would get an F for failure to turn in the assignment. Apparently DesJarlais has little to communicate, as there is no mechanism on his official website through which one can sign up for a newsletter. 

U.S. Rep David Kustoff, R-Tennessee 8 (Photo: kustoff.house.gov)
U.S. Rep David Kustoff, R-Tennessee 8 (Photo: kustoff.house.gov)

There’s no need for me to exhaustively detail what each of our congressional representatives write but after reading newsletters for a few months, there are themes and personal styles that emerge. 

Our newest congressperson, Rep. Diana Harshbarger in District 1, was elected in 2020 on a pro-Trump platform and her newsletters reflect that idealogy. In her Oct. 23 newsletter, she announced her introduction of the “Natural Immunity is Real” Act, complete with headlines profiling the legislation from the far right outlet Newsmax. Other highlights of Harshbarger’s updates? Support for an anti-union National Right to Work Act, anti-COVID vaccine mandate rhetoric and concern about “ where migrants are transported once in ICE custody.” (Oct. 1) 

Second District Congressman Tim Burchett only sends his newsletters monthly. Burchett devotes a lot of space to advertising his appearances on Newsmax and hyperbolic statements like “every state is now a border state (September issue.) Judging by newsletters, Burchett is our only congressman concerned about Chinese influence. To make sure you know that, he uses the hashtag #ChineseCommunistParty. 

U.S. Rep. David Kustoff, Republican representing West Tennessee’s 8th District, gets top marks for consistency and content. Kustoff’s staff blasts a weekly newsletter without fail, and “An update from Congressman David Kustoff” may be my favorite of the state’s congressional newsletters. 

He hits GOP talking points with lines like “Democrats’ reckless tax and spend agenda” and touts the occasional talking head appearance on Fox, but those bits play second fiddle to other content. Kustoff’s newsletters largely carry the sort of hometown news and constituent service tidbits that feel a little old school: Photos of events in his home district and descriptions of meetings, with say, members of the Tennessee Society of Certified Professional Accountants, convey the message that he actually does care as much about the wellbeing of his voters as about the national GOP narrative.  

If constituent newsletters were a school homework assignment, GOP District 4 Rep. Scott DesJarlais would get an F for failure to turn in the assignment: his official website offers no way to sign up for a newsletter.

In District 6, GOP Rep. John Rose packs a punch in his newsletters’ subject lines. With headlines like “Unmasking the origins of COVID-19” (Sept. 10) and “Tennesseans are fed up” (Oct. 14) give you a clear idea of what to expect before you open the email. From a technical standpoint, Rose’s newsletters are the most clearly and succinctly written and he keeps them short. 

Newsletters sent by the two Democrats in the federal delegation hew to their respective styles. 

Want newsletters?

District 1: Rep. Diana Harshbarger

District 2: Rep. Tim Burchett

District 3: Rep. Chuck Fleischmann

District 4: Scott DesJarlais

District 5: Rep. Jim Cooper

District 6: Rep. John Rose

District 7: Rep. Mark Green

District 8: Rep. David Kustoff

District 9: Rep. Steve Cohen

Fifth District Rep. Jim Cooper sends his newsletter, “The Wrap Up,” each Friday. It provides an interesting mix that includes policy updates written in the third person—on Friday, it read “Jim called (the infrastructure bill)  passage a “big deal” for Tennessee”—screenshots of Cooper tweets and photos of him with his cherubic grandson in a Halloween clown costume. In short it’s what Tennesseans have come to expect from Cooper over the last 40 years: serious policy debates and a willingness to poke fun at his own nerdiness.

District 9 Rep. Steve Cohen is considered the most liberal representative, which is damning with faint praise in Tennessee, but a review of his missives find photos of Cohen on the picket line with striking Kellogg employees in Memphis and quotes from former President Barack Obama or the late President John F. Kennedy.  Cohen has never been shy about throwing verbal punches and he’s apt to call out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for “recklessly obstructive” positions. Cohen knows how to read his Memphis room and delivers weekly. 

Finally, there’s my Congressman, Mark Green in District 7. I’ve been reading his updates since he took office in 2019 and I have too many thoughts for this column. Green, a Republican, might earn his own. 

Regularly reading updates over the last few has been an interesting experience and one that’s proven to be better than I expected: Although no doubt staff members are writing the newsletters for their bosses, each update captures the distinct personalities and priorities of our representatives. 

Many Tennesseans get their political impressions from cable TV news shows that often feature the opinion of the talking head du jour. Constituent newsletters at least give voters a direct conduit to information from Washington, DC and a view into their representatives’ thought processes. I urge you to subscribe: I guarantee you won’t always like what you read or approve of the writer, but knowledge is power.

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Holly McCall
Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. She has served as political analyst for WZTV Fox 17 and provided communications consulting for political campaigns at all levels, from city council to presidential. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.

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