Bob Franken


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I’ve been thinking for a while, which is always dangerous, about our ferocious budget-and-spending battle. It has defied compromise. In addition to the ugly politics, another reason neither side has been willing to seek a middle ground is because both have valid arguments.
It is true that the federal government cannot continue to overspend itself into a future of economic collapse. It is just as valid to believe that we cannot abandon the desperate needs of the young, the elderly, the poor, the ailing — to say nothing of whatever it takes to protect our citizens. We just can’t. So I keep on coming back to what would seem to be the obvious way out: We need to reach a bipartisan consensus on what the nation’s priorities are, what programs we want to fund and which ones we can shut down or at least scale back. After that, we can work on how to collect the revenue that pays for what’s left.
There’s one major problem with the idea: It is clear that a bipartisan consensus is impossible. Short of a war or another attack, there seems to be nothing that will cause us to rally around a common good, largely because we can’t agree what that common good is. Our leaders, who are really just followers of their constituents’ darkest instincts and campaign contributors’ selfish interests, are afraid to look past the next election. So they represent the worst in us.
Before you decide that’s too harsh, look at what just happened to the farm bill in the right-wing-controlled House of Representatives. One would think that if anything could bring everyone together, it would be our sustenance. But Republican extremists were not happy with reductions in the allocation for food stamps that already had been negotiated. They insisted on slashing even more. Apparently, poor people shouldn’t eat. Their cuts were so severe that Democrats couldn’t support the massive legislation, and down it went, leaving our entire agriculture system in a state of chaos.

Anybody who thinks it will be any different when immigration reform hits the House or when deals must be struck to avoid sending the nation into default are Pollyannas at best, naive at worst.
Set aside that discussion, and let’s move to another area where there is bipartisan consensus: government waste. Call me crazy, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that there are few — from wild-eyed lefties to those on the right-wing fringes — who would speak out in favor of squandering taxpayer money. So when the Government Accountability Office in April identified 162 examples of duplication or inefficiencies in programs that range from veterans’ job training to geographical data collection to higher-education financial aid to even catfish inspection, which fritter always tens of billions of dollars each year, one would think there would be a clamor for reform. Alas, no clamor, barely a murmur. And why would there be? Each of those redundant efforts is someone’s turf — not just agency turf, but that of various House and Senate committees that oversee those agencies. They translate to individual members’ campaign contributions from the affected special interests. So let’s put it this way: Eliminating duplication ain’t gonna happen.
Much is being made of recent polls that show Congress — and by extension, all our politicians — considered the lowest of the low. The blame, however, should not really be aimed just at them. Our elected officials have one thing in common: We elect them. (Where else do you get such insight?) How sad it is that we’ve been worn down and simply accept the rampant, pervasive corruption and ineptitude. We’ve apparently concluded that they cannot be overcome. Sure they can. By us. If we don’t escape our defeatist apathy, then our democracy, which requires participation by an informed citizenry, will fail. If we could address our Founding Fathers, all we would have left to say is “nice try.”

© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.

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