A church member reminded me last Sunday that the “government we don’t trust” is us — and he’s right. We often forget we are the ones who decide who serves in public office at the local, state and national levels.
The man was referring to the column I had written for that day’s newspaper about the popular bumper sticker that says, “I love my country. It’s the government I don’t trust.”
As you would expect, government officials don’t think much of the slogan because they say it simplifies a complex issue. And they are talking about the unwillingness of many Americans to get involved and confront problems requiring difficult solutions.
Democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power rests with the people. However, that power depends heavily on the degree of the people’s participation.
We know from recent Louisiana elections that the voter turnouts for the primary and general election were only 36 and 20 percent, respectively. And that is a pitiful showing when compared to the 70-plus percentages we used to see in statewide gubernatorial, legislative and local elections.
Unfortunately, many of the nonvoters are always the first to condemn elected officials who try to fix major problems. Two of those that I touched on last Sunday are the $15 trillion national debt and the financial issues facing the future of Social Security.
A congressional super committee failed to come up with a deficit reduction plan, and most of us don’t want anyone messing around with our Social Security. Two former federal officials who probably know more about those two issues than almost anyone in government sized up the situation well.
Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming, and Erskine Bowles, a former presidential chief of staff, served as co-chairmen of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Simpson has a reputation for not mincing his words. He said both parties in Congress have bowed to lobbying pressure from special interest groups and their own interest in getting re-elected.
“They’ll all go home to their districts, and say, ‘you know what I did for you, I saved you from any cuts in Medicare and Social Security,’ and the cheers will go up,” Simpson said. “The other guys will go home to their base and say, ‘I saved you. I didn’t allow one single cent of additional taxes, so I saved you.” And each of them will have a marvelous way of covering their fanny within their own district, and that’s the way it works. And there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s called politics”
The Bowles-Simpson report last year didn’t even get enough votes from its members to send its recommendations to Congress. Few wanted to take its advice to close tax loopholes, enact spending cuts and fix the long-term survival of Social Security.
Simpson said any possible solution means reining in health care costs and ending subsidized benefits for wealthy people. Democrats don’t want to do the first, and Republicans oppose the latter solution.
The sad fact of political life is that a majority of Americans still hate Congress but love their own congressman. And that is why it’s difficult to change things because we don’t have any control over who voters in other parts of the country send to Congress.
Take the case of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, for example. Conservatives don’t like him, but it was the Democrats of Nevada who sent him to Congress. Liberals don’t like House Majority Leader John Boehner, but they aren’t the Republicans from Ohio who like his style.
Congressmen aren’t the only culprits, according to Simpson. He blames lobbying groups on both sides of issues that kill efforts to rein in the cost of government. The AARP, he said, opposes any proposals to cut benefits.
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., chairman of the House Budget Committee, came up with a Social Security fix that would have changed the program only for those 54 and younger. Individuals 55 and older would stay in the current system and receive the benefits they have been promised. Despite that guarantee, he has been vilified mostly by people who wouldn’t have been affected.
Simpson also had some strong words for Grover Norquist, who heads Americans for Tax Reform that gets Republican politicians to sign anti-tax pledges. “He knows damned well that they’re not talking about ‘raising taxes,’ they’re talking about getting rid of these 180 tax expenditures (loopholes) that go to the wealthiest people in the United States,” Simpson said.
Nothing is going to change in government at any level until the public attitude changes. Americans applaud the extreme sacrifices made by the military to protect our democratic freedoms in faraway places. However, too many of us aren’t willing to make smaller sacrifices on the home front that will also serve the greater good. Voter turnouts of one-third or less and catchy bumper stickers won’t get the job done.