Paying for a Better Country: The Bill is Due (January 31, 2010)

Ask around, take a small poll of friends. Intrude on people in the elevators, on the bus, in the waiting room. When you are with a stranger for even a brief time, or when you are with friends, ask them this: do you believe that the American political system represents you and your beliefs?

It’s a cliché to say that the American political system is broken. It’s not broken; it’s simply evolved into something no one would have chosen.  But identifying problems is easy.  Anyone can offer a criticism of the status quo.  Complaining is the primary manifestation of the first amendment in this country, from toddlers, to teens; citizens to corporations.

This is, in fact, my primary critique of politics today: both parties are more interested in proving the other party wrong than in developing effective national strategies to improve the lives of citizens. Republicans seem more interested in killing the Democrat’s bills rather than working with the Democrats to create legislation that includes compromises from both parties but which places the interests of the people above all else.

Politics has become the focus of politics.  A Republican compromise that leads to health care reform would be a feather in the cap of the Democrat in office and thus improve the public perception of both the President and his party, likely at the expense of Republican congressional seats and/or Presidential hopefuls. Serving the people seldom seems like the foremost thought in the minds of our elected officials.

Republicans today (and Democrats from 2001-2008) won’t pay the price at the polls to affect a system of good federal governance. But who will pay the price for better government?

Last week the Supreme Court removed restrictions on how much corporations can contribute to campaign elections.  The basis for the 5-4 decision was that limits on spending represent government restrictions on first amendment, free speech rights of Americans.

I got it; and on its face, I agree. However, while the decision removes limits on the right to free speech, it further restricts the ability of regular Americans to be heard. Those of us who contribute little or nothing to the campaigns of politicians already have limited access to our elected officials. Those officials, elected one vote at a time, are beholden to the major benefactors who made the acquisition of those votes possible. It is not the votes themselves that matter to politicians, but the ability to GET the votes that matters.

What is it that we want as citizens? Is it a literal interpretation of the First Amendment that may be technically correct, or a system in which we have access to the Representatives who supposedly represent us?  There is no longer any volume control on free speech and while that removes government intrusions, it further limits access of regular people, like you and me. I don’t believe our country is better for this decision. Our government was founded as one “of the people and by the people.” Voting being our primary method of participating in the political system and as much a representation of our right to free speech as anything, the twenty-fourth amendment prohibits poll taxes so that no citizen is excluded from the political process. The Supreme Court’s defense of the First Amendment has done more to limit access than any 24th Amendment infringement ever could.

Are we willing to pay the price for the ability to be heard? Will we limit our right to unrestricted free speech so that all citizens have equal access and the influence of corporations and big money contributors is minimized?

Politicians from both parties laud the concept of smaller government. Americans pine for the shrinking of ever-growing federal infrastructure and programs.  Yet I have not heard a public willingness to forego the very provisions that make up an engorged federal government.  If we petition for smaller government, are we prepared to do without?

The root of the word government means to “bring into conformity with rules or principles or usage; impose regulations.”  Do we really want to be “governed?” Or would we prefer to be led?  If government backs away, are we prepared to step in to do those things for ourselves that a smaller government no longer provides us?  Many of us already are doing those things at home.

No government program can erase the $70,000 of debt I carried out of a failed marriage. No government program can erase the $5000 of negative equity I have in a 2004 SUV that costs me $1000 a month to drive in payments, gas and insurance. No government program can add 60 points to my credit score (driven down by a lousy debt to income ratio because I still own a house I can’t sell in this depressed real estate market) so that I can buy a house and benefit from the tax advantages of homeownership.  Yet, as I write this, I am living with my two children in the basement of a friends’ townhouse.  We live like Harry Potter in the cupboard under the stairs because it’s all that we can do.  Crunched by an income limited by salary and the usual budgetary demands of suburban life and ongoing payments to previous excess, something has to give. Unable to borrow a trillion dollars from the Chinese (though, to be honest, I haven’t called to ask) we make sacrifices to cope.

America as a society has payments to make. We owe on debts accumulated over the last century. We owe on wars we couldn’t afford. We owe money to entitlement programs from which we borrowed. We need to make investments in improving our access to our legislators. We need congressmen who will sacrifice what’s best for them in order to provide what’s best for us.

We can complain or we can participate. I’m already paying on my debts and so are you. Now let’s communicate to Washington that we are willing to pay the many and varied fees called for in improving the American political process.

Published in: on January 31, 2010 at 12:23 pm  Comments (3)  

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