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Ami Bera, MD Headshot

The Lost Art of Listening to the People

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The November elections sent a decisive message to our elected officials--or at least it should have. Here's what I heard Americans saying: we are frustrated with a government that seems wholly disconnected from the challenges middle class families face. We want our leadership to focus on rebuilding an economy that creates jobs now, and opportunity for future generations. We expect you--our government--to do what We the People are doing in these challenging times: tightening our belt, cutting the extras and prioritizing the things that really matter. Our tax dollars aren't a no-limit credit card.

While the brief lame duck session of Congress did not address the core concerns of most Americans, it did inspire a sense of optimism that perhaps the new Congress and the President would be able to set aside politics and find bipartisan solutions to America's challenges. We hoped that the Bowles-Simpson deficit commission recommendations, while being difficult to swallow, might somehow provide a starting point for a rational dialogue on how to reduce the national debt. And, in the aftermath of the Tucson tragedy, we prayed that we might be on the verge of a new chapter of politics--one based in an understanding that the duty of politicians is to serve all Americans in a manner of civility. Perhaps we were too optimistic.

As a doctor, I've learned the importance and value of listening. Just like you can't cure a patient without listening to what he's feeling, you can't cure a nation without hearing what the people are really asking for. Unfortunately, as too often happens in today's broken political system, the people's message has been ignored, twisted, and used for partisan advantage.

When I look at the initial cuts proposed and approved by the House of Representatives, I shudder at their vision for the future of our economy. Instead of supporting innovation, they propose to cut $1.6 billion from the National Institute of Health and $147 million from the National Science Foundation. Instead of ensuring that our children are equipped to begin their lives and education on a solid foundation, they propose to cut $1.1 billion from the Head Start program--reducing opportunity for 218,000 American children. Instead of focusing on putting Americans to work, Congress' proposed budget cuts that will lead to over 800,000 job losses according to the Economic Policy Institute.

This is hardly the mandate laid out by Americans in 2010. Where's the accountability to the people? Where's the prioritization of rebuilding our children's future? Where's the focus on creating jobs and protecting America's forgotten middle class?

We can do better, and we must hold the politicians accountable to do better. The most important issue facing us today is the daily struggle of American families. Far too many of us struggle just to make it through each month's mounting expenses, and far too many believe the lives of our children will be harder than the lives that we inherited. Our window to change this notion is closing and we need our elected officials to understand the gravity of the challenge.

This is not a Democratic or Republican challenge, and it does not demand a Democratic or Republican solution. This is an American challenge and it requires an American solution. If our nation is to rebuild opportunity for future generations, it will require our elected leaders to realize that their responsibility lies not with their political party, but rather with the American people that they have been chosen to represent.

So, here's a simple prescription for the politicians in Congress so eager to cut to the bone the community services we the people rely on--and to do so in our name: If your vote will make it more difficult for our children to compete in the global economy with countries like China and India, you're not listening. If your vote results in job loss, rather than job creation, you're not listening. If your vote protects the special interests, or your party's interests, rather than the middle class' interests, you're not listening.

In the end, the solution can be simple: If we put our shared values and children's future first, we can solve the challenges we face. It will take sacrifice, it will take bipartisanship, and it will take a new way of thinking. But we can do this. I have faith.

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