I spent six years as a Democratic staffer on the United States Senate Budget Committee. It was during the Reagan Revolution and we valiantly battled the insanely preposterous supply-side economic policies then championed by OMB Director David Stockman, who in his advancing old age now realizes how damaging and wrong-headed those polices actually were.
The wildly popular Ronald Reagan defeated President Jimmy Carter in 1980 on a platform that derided the value of government. It may still be too early to render a historical verdict on the relative merits of whether the country might have charted a far more sober and beneficial path to prosperity had the Reagan Revolution never existed but history surely will pinpoint a tectonic shift in public attitudes with respect to government beginning in 1981.
While traditional conservative and Republican attitudes towards government over the twentieth century were couched in terms of a preference for smaller government versus larger government, that changed during the 1980 election. Running on a slogan of "Morning in America" Reagan's exuberance over the prospect of a return to an America that only existed on the back lots of Hollywood, or in a Norman Rockwell illustration, morphed into a proclamation that government was in fact the problem not the solution. This radical and reactionary proclamation appealed to a general electorate that had started to despair over the changing face of the nation.
This was particularly true as we struggled with a tarnished international reputation largely fostered by four distinct events: first, the disgraceful resignation of a president deeply involved in criminality and corruption; second, a stinging defeat in Vietnam that cost us over 58,000 American soldiers and sparked a cultural revolution that divided the country; third, a realization that we no longer controlled our own fate with respect to an addiction to fossil fuels, manifested in two oil embargoes, increased prices at the pump, and long lines at gas stations; and lastly, a challenge to our collective machismo from a Middle Eastern theocracy that held Americans hostage for 444 days.
We are currently witnessing a maturation of the destructive and odious political ideas spawned over three decades ago in what may more appropriated be labeled "Mourning in America." The Tea Party insurgency finds comfort in the idea that a functional and operating government is the enemy of the people, regardless of size. In their world view size matters little. Thus we are confronted with a dysfunctional system of governance and policy making where consensus and compromise, the bulwark of our constitutional framework, are seen as weakness not strength.
To the credit of some on the Republican side of the aisle the asinine ranting of people like Ted Cruz from Texas, Mike Lee from Utah, and Rand Paul from Kentucky on whether or not to allow for the processes of the Congress to move forward by appointing conferees so that issues can be worked out between the House and Senate on important matters affecting the people of this nation is a defining example of just how whacked our political system is at this juncture. As a partisan Democrat it is amusing to watch the Republican Party imploding at the seams, but as a conscientious and concerned citizen worried about the future for our kids it is disheartening and disgusting.
Every bit as dangerous, however, is the continuing economic disaster perpetuated by sequestration. During my Budget Committee days it became painfully clean and obvious that there were a number of ways to make budgetary decisions. There were gimmicks that would hide the true costs of decisions until later years, one could always rationalize optimistic economic assumptions that would show increased revenues and decreased costs, whether it involved higher economic growth or lesser inflation. At one point I recall the Republican majority actually submitting a $40 billion "plug," an unspecified phantom eradication of costs with no explanation. And then, of course, there was always the magic bullet of waste, fraud, and abuse. By merely stipulating that governmental agencies could make significant savings by merely eliminating fat in their budgets you could reduce costs.
But in the end a budget is quite simply a statement of priorities. A friend once explained to me that you could tell an individual's priorities by looking at his/her checkbook. Budgets tell us a lot about what we value in our society. And when it comes down to it there are few things in the federal budget that do not reflect a real value and need in society. Decisions about what to cut or gut in order to bring the revenues/expenses balance sheet into an acceptable realm are tough decisions indeed. But that is the job of our elected representatives. They are paid and entrusted to make decisions that benefit the nation and its citizens. To quote George W. Bush, "It is hard work." But to use a crude metaphor, our policymakers are specialists, they are surgeons not butchers and are expected to wield scalpels not meat cleavers.
Currently our government is operating under the specter of across-the-board spending cuts that reflect no prioritization and hence treat all programs as if they had an equivalent value. No greater injustice or cowardly derogation of responsibility could befall a nation struggling with uncertainty, fear, anger, and an economy that has pummeled a rapidly shrinking middle class and those at the lower end of the income scale. Yet obstructionist tactics by ideological purists who have misconstrued the true meaning and intentions of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution and treat the government as the enemy are willing to bring down the system with little or no regard for the collateral damage inflicted upon an unsuspecting populace.
Dissent, debate, intellectual argument, emotional appeal, difference of opinion, and conviction are all suitable and noble attributes of a system where discussion of contentious issues within a defined and rational structure of discourse that is designed to produce resolution exists. This of course is predicated upon the notion that resolution is achieved and a course of action takes place. Endless discussion without resolution or obstruction for the purpose of forestalling action does not represent a rational system. The current paralysis aided and abetted by ideologues like Ted Cruz is irrational and destructive.
We must figure out a way to fix the processes and procedures for dealing with the deep division in our political system so that we can move forward on important issues that affect the nation and also start to address the cynicism and despondency that obstruction fosters. But it is equally important that our elected representatives be held accountable for making the tough decisions that are required of them. We must repeal this sequestration nightmare and we must replace the policymaking butchers with surgeons. Government should not be viewed as the problem, it can be the solution, and we must restore confidence in the people that it is capable of making a positive difference in their lives. Thirty years of reinforcing political negativism must be replaced with positive energy that can only come from a functioning system of governance. Ending sequestration is a very positive first step.
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