Government is Letting Us Down, and it's Our Fault
In any good US Government class, the unit on Congress invariably centers on the idea of reelection. In short, one learns that without fail or exception, a Representative or Senator will gear their every action towards that end; reelection matters above all and nothing comes close. A student unfamiliar with the daily lives of congressmen is often surprised to learn that an incredibly large portion of their time is spent on casework for individual constituents, or that dozens of house members miss a large percentage of their committee hearings. Now a congressman may argue that their time not spent in committee hearings is spent in other legislative activity, but in reality the House meets for legislative activity only one in three days over the course of a year, and Senate only meets at a slightly higher rate. And those legislative meetings don't often last very long: the New York Times found that in 2013 the House was only in session for 18 hours a week, or 942 hours a year. A Congressman might argue, as the Congressional Management Foundation writes, that members "endure unequaled public scrutiny and criticism" while doing large amounts of constituent or casework outside of their legislative responsibilities, but the expectation of direct service in lieu of legislative work is a massive issue. Federal politicians should be representing our interests on a federal level, not pandering to an individual's every need.
In reality, the system is set up the way it is not so that we as constituents can be better served, but so that politicians can maintain their rates of re-election. Representatives have found over the course of their careers that they often win more votes not by adding to landmark legislation, but squeezing federal agencies for job-creating programs to be enacted in their district, like building a new prison or a water treatment plan. Why should a politician put his job on the line to support major legislation like the Affordable Care Act in 2010, just to lose their job over the backlash in November? Many Democrats made this sacrifice and paid for it, but such courage and conviction is seriously lacking in Washington these days. And we encourage this cowardly behavior.
Members of congress are not concerned with fixing entitlements, balancing the budget, or reeling in spending because it's just too costly at the ballot box. A perfect example of this is the GOP's recent attempts at health care reform. Republicans who talked tough for the last 7 years suddenly weren't so sure of their convictions. Many knew that their minimalist lassie-faire legislation would only work if they eliminated key regulations and mandates, but pulled their support for the bill due to backlash over pre-existing conditions. The Freedom Caucus were the few courageous holdouts, refusing to vote yes unless party leadership kept at least some of it's promises to their base. In the Senate, the Republican health care legislation is expected to be far more liberal than promised, and top Republican Orrin Hatch has actually expressed openness to keeping the wildly unpopular individual mandate. The bottom line is that Republicans are afraid to take away benefits from their constituents because it might injure their chances of reelection, never mind the fact that the Republican strategy of government relies heavily on cutting spending. When it comes to offering a massive tax break, the GOP is all for it, but when it comes time to trim the fat and reel in spending, suddenly its "complicated."
After 9/11 when the country went to war, George W. Bush and the GOP passed tax cuts, despite the massive government spending in Iraq. They told the American people that the war would cost $50-60 billion, but 14 years later the bill is nearing 3.7 trillion, with a T. If the Bush administration had been honest with the country and said "you need to pay a little more in taxes so we can afford this war," the country probably would have been okay with the sacrifice, but they cowered under the pressure from millionaires and party officials to keep with the party line. They weren't even honest with the spending when the bill actually came in, hiding the money in emergency appropriations outside of the normal defense budget.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, a baby Obama administration failed to adequately hold the architects of the massive meltdown accountable. Almost 9 million people lost their jobs in the financial crisis, the unemployment rate doubled, 5 million people lost their homes, the suicide rate went up 5%, and it is estimated that the recession was directly responsible for the loss of almost 5,000 American lives, and over 10,000 lives in the US, UK and Canada. If an American soldier was responsible for the deaths of 15,000 of his fellow soldiers, he would be tried and convicted faster than you could say oohrah. Why did we show such leniency to the greedy thugs that killed our economy? We didn't, the government did, providing billions of bailout money while the CEOs of major banks gave themselves and their employees multi-million dollar bonuses. The Obama administration was afraid to make waves with the powerful financial sector and billionaire CEOs who gave money to their campaign, so nothing was done. If our government isn't protecting us by keeping corporations honest, what is it doing for us?
What we really need in Washington is courage, courage to lead the country in the direction it really needs to go, courage to do what is unpopular, courage that has been lacking in Washington in the last decade or so. We need the courage that George H. W. Bush had in 1990, agreeing to raise taxes to help reduce the budget deficit in a sputtering economy despite his famous 1988 campaign line "read my lips, no new taxes." Is wasn't popular with his party, and he didn't want to do it, but it was what the country needed, so he took the hit. Bush ended up losing the 1992 election to Bill Clinton, but what he did for the country was immensely important in the late 90s economic boom. Our politicians need to stop promising sunshine and unicorns, and we need to stop getting upset when they don't deliver. Did Hillary Clinton really think she could pass a constitutional amendment to change Citizens United? Obviously not, but it sounded good so she ran with it. Is the wall really going to get built? Are we really going to abolish the Department of Education? Again, it is far from likely.
In an era where truth doesn't matter anymore and politicians can promise the moon but deliver nothing, it is we the voters who need to make change. We must demand realism and accountability. We must demand that politicians worry about us, not their corporate donors. We must protest when congressmen raise their salaries before working to raise ours, or work Tuesday through Thursday and miss 80% of their committee hearings. When prospective candidates propose unconstitutional measures, we need to say no even if it is our own candidate. We cannot excuse candidates who assault reporters, no matter how much we hate their opposition. We must hold ourselves and by extension our representatives in Washington to a higher standard, a higher standard of truth. Government will keep letting us down if we let them, so lets make a change.