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The American public and gridlock in Washington

September 29, 2011

The New York Times published a front-page article earlier this week that is indicative of the disconnect that now exists between the news media, the American public and the federal government.

The story, written by Robert Pear, documented the frustration felt by Pennsylvania flood victims who were angry with Congress for delaying government assistance to them because of bickering over federal spending.

In short, the article said Republicans were blocking additional expenditures to the Federal Emergency Management Agency unless those costs were offset with cuts to other areas of the budget — a position opposed by Democrats who believe that disaster relief should continue to be approved automatically as it has been for decades.

Said one resident who was quoted in the story: “Members of Congress are playing with people’s lives, not just their own political careers. While they are rattling on among themselves down there in Washington, people are suffering.”

The sentiment captured in this quote — and the rest of the news story for that matter — is correct. Congress can often have a tin ear when it comes to the plight of ordinary Americans.

But while the Times’ article framed the story as one of insenstive congressmen squabbling amongst themselves while “the people” suffered, the article missed a larger point that is often ignored by the news media, namely that the American public has refused — absolutlely refused — to accept any responsibility for the gridlock on Capitol Hill.

A case in point rests with Kenneth Eisenman, a man quoted in the Times‘ story after his house exploded on the night of the flood.

According to the Times, Eisenman believes that the government should help hard working Americans like him who are in trouble, but he is sympathetic to Republican arguments that disaster relief should be offset with cuts to “lower-priority programs,” which he described as “useless and wasteful.”

He didn’t specify what those other programs were, but the message was clear: Cut someone else’s benefits, not mine.

Unfortunately, Eisenman is not alone. Polls often show that Americans support the idea of cutting government in general as long as the programs they use are kept in place. (Also see here and here.)

These conflicting positions cannot coexist without compromise. Until Americans understand the value of government in our lives and the unavoidable fact that the benefits we all receive cost money, we contribute to the inaction on Capitol Hill.

How can anyone expect Congress to end gridlock and enact balanced spending and revenue measures when the public itself sends such contradictory messages?

The Pennsylvanians featured in the Times article, many of whom lost their homes to Tropical Storm Lee and the floodwaters of the Susquehanna River, obviously believe that there is a role for government in their lives.

Yet in 2010, they elected Republican Lou Barletta to represent them in Washington, a man who campaigned on a platform that Congress was “addicted to spending.” He supported U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s blueprint for privatizing Medicare; he has accepted speaking engagements before tea party activists; and he supports the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.

It’s time for all of us to make a choice. We can’t have it both ways. We either accept the harsh realities of the rugged individual and resign to make it on our own, even in times of crisis, or we acknowledge that we are part of a broader community in which we each look out for one another.

I feel for the flood victims of Pennsylvania and believe that the federal government should help them.

But they and other Americans can’t play the “innocent” victims and place all the blame for government inaction on “politicians.” This is a democracy after all, and we the people must take responsibility for the government we elect.

 

 

 

 

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