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Michael Keegan Headshot

A Government to Love: One That Works for Everybody

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Rep. Steve King of Iowa told a local TV station a few weeks ago that "the best thing anybody can do" in Congress is not come up with positive solutions, but to "kill bad bills." He wasn't just speaking for himself. He was explaining the philosophy of today's right wing.

Of course elected officials should oppose bills they disagree with. But King and his party have taken this to an extreme, opposing any efforts to use the power of government to fix problems that affect ordinary people. This anti-government strain of the Tea Party that is calling the shots in today's GOP doesn't represent just hands-off libertarianism, as many would like us to believe. The Tea Party does want government to work: but they only want it to work for a few of us.

This growing movement that claims to be anti-government has caught us up in almost daily skirmishes over federal programs and budget line items. But these battles have obscured the real issue. It's not a big government vs. small government debate. It's a debate about who the government works for.

It's not enough for progressives to fight these selective battles. We must also go on the offense, envisioning and proudly defending a government that works. A government that works serves the needs of all Americans. A government that works provides a safety net that allows us to take reasonable risks. A government that works is one that helps make the American Dream possible for everyone.

It's important to note that the bashers of big government aren't really against government in any form. They're fine with the government that they want; they just don't want one that serves all of us. When the Ted Cruz wing of the Republican Party shut down the federal government for weeks on end last year with their bluster about cutting the size of government, not everyone was hurt equally. Hundreds of thousands of government employees were sent home without pay, and government agencies shut down many services for low-income people, veterans, pregnant women, and National Institutes of Health patients. Also on hiatus: yes, environmental and financial regulators.

When the Senate refused to confirm any of President Obama's nominees to the influential Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, it wasn't just a refusal to let government do its job and thereby limit the work of the court. It was an attempt to preserve a Republican-appointed majority on the court that had been consistently rewriting the law to favor the interests of large corporations -- that kind of government, they like just as is.

When the House Republicans voted to make drastic cuts to food stamps and Senate Republicans filibustered an effort to extend unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless, they weren't concerned with shrinking the size of government. Instead, they focused their "small government" rhetoric on the minor portion of federal spending that goes to helping everyday Americans get a chance.

Unsurprisingly, the right, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, also favor "small government" when it comes to letting corporations and wealthy individuals give huge amounts of unaccountable money to political campaigns, drowning out the voices of individual Americans. Limits on campaign spending, some of which go back more than a century, are what allowed us to build our strong, vibrant government of the people -- a government that is now under constant attack.

When President Obama said in his State of the Union address that "it should be the power of our vote, not the size of our bank accounts, that drives our democracy," he wasn't offering a platitude. He was outlining a clear vision of government that works. We must remain aware of what the government-bashers are really after and proudly stand for a government that works for all Americans.