The other day, my brother sent me a copy of the final column of a retiring columnist [Charlie Reese of the Orlando Sentinal]. If the column is representative of Mr. Reese’s views, I’m glad to see him no longer in print and wish him a very happy retirement. His view was that all of our ills as a society can be laid to 545 people – the Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court, because not one of the taxes, not one of the federal budgets, not one of the federal regulations, not one of the deficits, and not one of the federal court decisions that have led to the mess we’re in could have taken place without the acts of those individuals… and that each and every one of them could have said “no.”
And, in the strictest and most simplistic sense of the word, he’s absolutely right. But in the larger sense, he’s absolutely wrong… because we live in a representative democratic republic, and we, as voters or non-voters, decide who represents us every two years. As some of you may know, I spent some 18 years in Washington, D.C., first as the legislative director for a congressman, then as the staff director for his successor, then as the head of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. EPA, and finally as a consultant, i.e., beltway bandit, representing corporations before the Congress and the Executive Branch. Given that I’ve also worked in private industry and as a small businessman, not to mention as a Navy pilot, I’ve seen how government works and doesn’t work pretty much from all sides. And it’s anything but simple.
I’ve known personally dozens of representative and senators, and professionally dealt with hundreds of them… and well over 90% of them faithfully and diligently represented the views of the majority of the voters who elected them. It’s all well and good to extol the “good old days” when the USA was the economic power of the world with balanced budgets and prosperity… but that often wasn’t the case. Even before the Great Depression, there were other brutal depressions and financial collapses, and certainly in World War II, the budget was far from balanced. By the time of the Great Depression, the majority of Americans were ready to move away from unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, and they showed it in their support of Franklin Roosevelt and whom they elected to Congress. With unemployment over 25%, and breadlines everywhere, with older people in poverty, who could blame them? They voted for what they thought they wanted, as they did before, and as they have ever since.
Since I left Washington, have my representatives and senators represented my views? Hell no! But my views aren’t in the majority where I live. And because only a little more than half the eligible voters actually vote, especially in off-year elections, it may well be that many senators and representatives do not represent the views of the majority of their constituents, but only the views of the majority of those who vote… but that’s not the fault of the Congress. It’s the fault of those who fail to vote.
To blame the problems in Washington on a Congress and a President that reflect the views of the majority of voters is not only simplistic, but it’s also taking the easy way out. Recent elections have shown, more than ever, that any representative or senator who goes against the wishes of the majority of voters in his or district or state usually gets tossed out. The plain fact of the matter is that the majority of voters, for better or worse, really don’t want fiscal discipline. They don’t want cuts in the federal programs that benefit them, only in those that benefit someone else, and they don’t want to pay more taxes, although it might be all right if someone else did. And Congress has continued to listen to them and reflect their wishes.
Would any of us want a government that didn’t? That would be even worse than what we have… and what we have isn’t all that wonderful at the moment, but it’s still better than the alternatives. The problem isn’t the structure, and it isn’t the Congress. As Pogo said many years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”