Guest Columns

HUDSON: INSIDE THE BELTWAY

Another State of the Union, another reminder about Washington hubris

Contributing Columnist

“Suppose you were an idiot,
and suppose
you were a member of Congress;
but I repeat myself.”
Mark Twain

If you remember your high school chemistry, you may dimly recall the notion of a semi-permeable membrane. It’s a physical barrier that allows ions suspended in a solution to pass through from one side to the other, but only in one direction. A recent visit to our nation’s capital provided convincing evidence that the Beltway now serves as a political ‘bell jar’ which permits only “informed” opinion to escape Washington for the edification of an unwashed American electorate. Incoming messages must be soldiered in by lobbyists willing to endure the post-9/11 security state that has even further isolated members of Congress.

Washington has long been a narcissistic community convinced that voters rise each morning and turn their faces towards their leaders for daily inspiration and direction. The notion that we benighted provincials may let months at a time pass by without considering Congress or its dysfunction and skewed priorities beggars belief. Capitol hubris grows to a crescendo each year with the President’s State of the Union address. Ink once spilled by the barrel has been replaced by an invisible phalanx of tweeting, blogging byte merchants. Who has invited whom as their guests, who will sit with whom during the speech and who will offer up the obligatory partisan rebuttals are treated as auguries of near mystical import.

This year much of the speculation centered on whether Republicans could find a message or, better yet, a messenger who would restore their mojo — a herald capable of convincing an increasingly skeptical electorate that their party has at least one solution for a national challenge that doesn’t involve the incantatory repetition of the word no. You don’t have to be a Tea Party zealot to recognize the Affordable Care Act is a bureaucratic nightmare — two thousand pages of provisions, forty thousand pages of rapidly metastasizing regulations and a mushrooming administrative framework that virtually no one understands including those tapped to construct it. It’s only tolerated for now because Americans believe they shouldn’t have to risk bankruptcy simply because they get sick. Going forward, whether Obamacare will prevent similar outcomes remains to be seen.

Congressional Republicans acknowledge the exclusion of those with pre-existing medical conditions by insurors is an outrage. They provide lip service to portability, affordability and the trappings of guaranteed health care security. Yet, when they suggest that competition and the market can provide better regulation through self-governance than government can, their message to voters is clear: “We can’t really help you with that.” When corporate officers loot company pension funds, crash their banks and defraud their clients, the message remains the same. “These should be crimes, but we can’t really help you with that.” If you are unhappy about gun carnage and seeking greater safety for yourself and your family, don’t look to the GOP. They aren’t interested in helping with that, either. Buy yourself a gun. Are you staggering beneath tens of thousands of dollars in student loans? That’s a damned shame, but they can’t help with that. Perhaps you shouldn’t have gone to college in the first place. Your parents brought you here when you were in a crib, you only speak English and graduated from an American high school — and now, you’d like to go to college. Sorry, they can’t help you with that. Need a job? Just get government out of the way and the market will come knocking
at your door. No reason to help with that.

Marco Rubio’s response to the State of the Union, his desperate lunge for a life saving bottle of water included, sent a clear message that today’s Republican party believes we are responsible for ourselves. Work hard, save, resist taxes and you too may make it into the 1%. Once there, neither you nor your family will ever require help or protection. You’ll be able to take care of yourself and join in the happy business of dismantling government. What of the half of Americans who reported they would be unable raise $2,000 within thirty days if it were needed to pay for a family emergency? Their furnaces will remain unfixed, their cars will go up on blocks and they will find health care at their local emergency room. There’s certainly nothing we can do to help with that.

If this remains the Republican message, there is no savior to be found for their political brand. That would be a shame because there are roads to be built, infrastructure to be modernized and a budget to be balanced in our country. And, in the final analysis, government carries a constitutional responsibility for assuring, even guaranteeing, the dignity and security of those at the margins of American life. The young, the strong and the well off can and should take care of themselves. When these are in the majority, as they have been throughout much of our history, paying for compassionate assistance to those in need has proven easy. Most Americans embrace this responsibility.

Unfortunately, Congress has grown increasingly deaf to public opinion as it carefully calibrates policies to resonate with the preferences of its political funders. It’s past time voters shattered the current bell jar that protects our federal officers from engagement with us. I suggest two Constitutional amendments that could breach this cocoon. The first would be the mandatory public financing of federal campaigns (largely because it would be the quickest and easiest to implement). The second, but more important, reform would be a requirement that Congressional redistricting be performed in each state by randomly drawn citizen panels specifically charged with establishing the maximum number of competitive districts, thereby forcing each party to select its most capable candidate. When was the last time you entered the polls with a feeling that you couldn’t go wrong — that both candidates would perform competently and fairly on your behalf? I don’t remember that feeling, either.

Miller Hudson writes about politics for The Colorado Statesman. He served in the state legislature two terms from Denver.<?strong>