The Government We Want vs. the Government We Want to Pay For

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Yesterday, upon the stair,
I met a man who wasn’t there
He wasn’t there again today
I wish, I wish he’d go away...

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Antigonish, Hughes Mearns

Now that we have reached the sequester, we need to look at the difference between the government we want and the government we want to pay for.

When people come to Washington, DC to visit the Capitol Building and watch Congress in action (or inaction, whichever you prefer), they are often surprised by what they see on the floors of the House and the Senate.  When they watch C-Span (and many people do), the speeches they see their representatives give make it look like they are all talking to a full house.  In reality, most of the Members’ time is spent elsewhere so they are usually speaking to nearly no one -- save the people waiting for their turn to speak.  When C-Span first started broadcasting, they would pan the room but were told to stop or their cameras would be banned.

When Members of the House and the Senate make their impassioned speeches, they aren’t speaking to no one.  While the chambers may be empty, the threat to send C-Span packing was hollow as they need it as much as it needs them.  They are speaking to their constituents.  They are pandering to us.

The rhetoric from the campaign differs significantly from the rhetoric of the past few weeks. Every newscast brings news of the apocalypse the cuts will cause.  During each campaign, however, we are inundated with the message that Congress has a “spending problem.”  If American households have to balance their budgets, why shouldn’t Congress?

Because we don’t want Congress to.

We like government programs -- we want to cut spending in a general sense, just not any specific programs.  We want everything to be the best in the world -- our military, education system, roads... you name it, we want the best.  No one wants to pay for it.  A recent Pew Research Center poll found little support for cutting much.  The only area where people would like to see real cuts is in foreign aid.  Interestingly, different polls have shown the same thing but that the amount they think we should spend (three percent of GDP) is higher than we actually are spending (one percent).

Yet, we hate Congress.  We love to hate Congress.

Congressional approval ratings in 2012 were its lowest in history.  Moreover a recent Public Policy Polling (PPP) poll found cockroaches are more popular.  So are root canals and Ghenghis Khan.  One of the only people less popular is Lindsay Lohan. (Want to know what she thinks of that?  Read this.  Warning: it's satire.)

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So, given how everyone loves to hate Congress, why don't we "throw ALL the bums out!"?  People may hate the institution but they generally like their particular representative.  That is one of the reasons it is so hard to unseat an incumbent.  Another is gerrymandering that has left our districts so homogeneous ideologically that whoever wins a seat will probably be able to keep it.

Representatives' first job is to look out for their constituents.  Maybe they do that, maybe they do not but what they always try to do is bring home as much federal money as possible.  Before the word "earmark" became dirty, it was very, very popular.  Federal projects mean jobs.  Sure there is waste in government (like everywhere else) but most goes for projects that at least some people like.  Even the "bridge to nowhere" had support.  And one reason former Senator Alphonse D'Amato (R-NY) was so hard to defeat can be summed up in his nickname: Senator Pothole.  No constituent service was too trivial for him.  Go anywhere in West Virginia and I challenge you NOT to find something with Robert Byrd's name on it.

We all can agree that we need to deal with our budget.  Entitlements and the military need to be part of that conversation (though I think dealing with health care costs will help with a lot of our Medicare and Medicaid issues). I just wish we didn't have to bring our government to the brink every three months to have this discussion.

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