I’m pretty aggravated at our government officials right now. The debt crisis looms large. With the shit piling up on our doorstep, and the stink already polluting the neighborhood, they’re arguing about what size shovels we need and whether we should invest in fertilizing gear. Are we really paying these people? A plague on both their houses.
Sometimes when I’m attending a business meeting, I look around the room, count heads, estimate travel expenses, guess at salaries, and come up with a number. What are we spending, per hour, for everyone to be there? I’m most likely to indulge this mental exercise when we are ticking away the minutes pursuing fruitless, non-productive, wasteful discussion. Often this can be attributed to one or two individuals with a fragile ego or an ax to grind, posturing for effect and usually making fools of themselves in the process. Maybe you’ve been in similar meetings. Next time, take a stab at your own number. It may surprise you.
Now think about that number in context of our elected officials. On any given day, at any given hour, We the People are spending an enormous amount of our money on our representative government. We become numb to the noise, accustomed to the rhetoric, dreading yet anticipating another election season. We tolerate—sometimes even relish—the nuttiness of it all, as we remind ourselves that this is the way it’s done, and this is the way it’s always been done. Love it or leave it, our system is still the best, right? Still, since government waste is a hot topic right now, consider that hourly number. How much of our money—yours and mine—is wasted hourly in a given day by those esteemed representatives who play politics as a game?
At a time when we really need our elected leaders to rise to the occasion and do their very best work, way too many are still posturing and grandstanding for political gain.
Long ago I learned that I disagree with many people about many important topics. I was taught to think for myself, to question authority, to keep an open mind, and to always ask why. It turns out that in this independence of thought, I am very like many of those with whom I disagree.
I dislike being told what to think, and what I should believe. I dislike labels designed to simplify or marginalize a set of complex opinions and beliefs. Although some Americans may live their lives in black and white, my own experience has been defined by shades of gray.
Still, absolutes exist for many Americans, and I have to respect that. For example, there are groups of Americans who stand unequivocally and without compromise against abortion, those who stand against capital punishment, and those with polar opposite views on those issues. But there are also those who fall in between. Those who consider mental health as a mitigating factor in capital punishment, but otherwise support it. Those who consider rape or incest as mitigating factors in abortion, but otherwise oppose it.
There are Americans who stand strongly against big government—one of those convenient, coded labels that for most of its opponents translates to federal social programs, spending programs, subsidies, and bureaucracies of most flavors. There are also Americans who believe more government is almost always better, that the free market is evil, and that government exists to protect the people from corporate interests and themselves. Neither of these groups is any more or less “American” than the other, even though they’re guided by different principles.
I happen to disagree with both groups. That is to say, I agree with both of them. I won’t get into details now (another time), but my own convictions lie in the middle, and I reject liberal and conservative labels to characterize my views. As I’ve said, shades of gray abound for me. For me, there is usually something to be learned from both sides.
The Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives is currently engaged in some flagrant and remarkable behavior. But then, so are a number of Americans who self-identify as Tea Party voters. I believe some of these Americans have become confused about our system of government.
In the current debate over the way forward in the debt standoff, much is made of the 2010 election that ushered in the self-styled young guns of the House of Representatives. Claiming a mandate from their Tea Party constituents in the election, these members cite the will of the people to bring the country to the brink of disaster in this high-stakes game of chicken on the debt ceiling. Ignoring logic, reason, and compromise, they hold firmly to an ideology that excuses their childish tantrums by suggesting they are simply doing the will of the people. This is not a partisan observation; these folks have drawn the ire of many conservatives in their own party, including Speaker John Boehner and Senator John McCain.
The House of Representatives of the 112th Congress made a big show of reading the Constitution when they first came to Washington. According to a Wall Street Journal report, this was “the latest overture to satisfy Tea Party activists who think America has strayed too far from its founding document.”
One of the beauties of the Constitution is that members of the House of Representatives are elected to 2-year terms. Representation by the States in the House is apportioned by districts. (Another topic for future discussion.) By design, the House is somewhat more subject to popular opinions, fads, movements, etc… on a limited temporal basis.
But the beautiful Constitution they’re so proud to read and quote also forms another chamber of Congress, the Senate, where its members are elected on staggered 6-year terms. The founders deliberately set up our government to guard against the undue influence of popular opinion on the actual job of governing. Indeed, this was one of the ways in which our founders insured a limited government. As a result, major change comes slowly by design.
The House of Representatives numbers 435. There are 60 members in the Tea Party caucus. In general, the caucus is “dedicated to promoting fiscal responsibility, adherence to the movement’s interpretation of the Constitution, and limited government.”
I respect all Americans. But this is not the exclusive government of the Tea Party. This is also my government, our government, designed intentionally with checks and balances to find reasoned, compromised, representative, and sometimes painful solutions to our problems. This immature and irresponsible group of legislators is flirting with disaster at our peril.
No one can ever claim “The American People” want this approach or that approach, exclusive of all others. We generally disagree about what we want, while we generally agree that there is no perfect solution. We can tolerate some level of political games from our leaders in a divided government; that's part of the process of representing an ideologically divided nation. We cannot tolerate when polarized views and special interests force an intransigence that threatens to hurt all Americans.
No one is blameless, starting with you and me. We the People get the government we deserve, and we sometimes pay the price for not being more involved in the process, not making our voices heard, not standing up to the fringes, not voting our own self-interests. Congress has been derelict. The president’s leadership has been lacking and late.
All sides bear responsibility for that steaming pile on the doorstep. All must shoulder the messy and unpleasant job of starting the cleanup. If we should fail to act, we can’t say we weren’t warned.