Losing our grip on our government

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Government of the people, by the people and for the people" has in fact perished from the Earth, at least in the United States. This is the conclusion I draw in contemplating the situation in Washington at the moment. I am not ready to rule out "a new birth of freedom," but the signs are otherwise.

Part of the problem is leadership. Another is the ubiquitous, iniquitous role of money in Washington. Even reference to "public service" sounds naive and provincial with respect to our government today. The Republicans hate the Democrats. Some of the Republicans hate the rest of the Republicans. The White House hates the Congress. The House of Representatives hates the Senate. In the meantime, what the rest of the country needs just does not matter to these people.

Where did we find Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Vice President Joe Biden and even President Barack Obama, perhaps the biggest disappointment of all? There is a tendency to cast a golden glow over even political reprobates like Lyndon B. Johnson in retrospect, but the current cast of characters takes the cake for mediocrity.

Last week we saw a turgid dose of nonperformance on the part of Congress. The failure of immigration reform was one example. We are a nation of immigrants. Virtually every American can tell you, perhaps with some creative imagination but nonetheless with an approximation of accuracy, when his family came to the United States and from where. Both parties have something to gain from resolving the problem of the illegal immigrants here now and in setting reasonable rules for future aspiring arrivals. Instead, mean-spiritedness prevails and probably a quest on the part of campaign contributors to make money from building the new fences and walls and contracting for the guards that legislators seem to have in mind for America's border with Mexico.

Even some of the more primitive Republicans seem to grasp that they will pay the price at the ballot box if they allow ignorant nativism and greed to prevail on this issue. Do they not grasp also that the health of the economy depends in part on the push from the bottom that comes from new immigrants?

A second example of abject failure last week: Congress let subsidized student loan rates soar. How can these fools not grasp that it is very much to America's advantage to make it possible for more young Americans to achieve higher education without graduating with enormous amounts of debt and that if America is to compete on the international stage it cannot discourage access to higher education? Perhaps Republican and Democratic fat cats want lenders who finance student loans to make as much money as possible, never mind the students and their needy families.

Again, on the political level, I cannot imagine how both parties fail to understand how much young people are going to hate them -- and vote against them -- if they do not come to their senses and fix this problem. "Let's see, how do we alienate Hispanics, youth and everyone else who isn't rich?"

Then we come to the worst of last week -- the so-called farm bill. In the past it has been an evil concoction -- "evil" in the sense that the taxpayer gets screwed -- that involved the big agricultural companies getting big subsidies and the poor getting food stamps.

The big agricultural companies certainly didn't need more subsidies, but, hey, what the heck. The food stamp beneficiaries unfortunately do need subsidized food. The recession has meant that America's poor have grown both in number. Unemployment is high, stagnant wages seem to have become a fact of American life. And a high percentage of America's poor -- those eligible for food stamps -- are children. The estimate runs from up to 23 percent.

So, the House of Representatives approved a farm bill that includes the big subsidies for the agricultural industry but leaves out the food stamps. Now, let's assume that these congressmen come from districts where they can do without the votes of the poor. The agricultural industry will give them enough money to fight off their opponents. But where are their hearts? Have they ever seen a hungry child? What is going on in this place?

My final lament is for our system of justice. Edward J. Snowden is a pathetic figure. He has painted himself into a corner of the transit lounge at Moscow airport, a guest of the Russian security police. But it might be worth asking why he is willing to accept that, or exile in a Latin American country, rather than take his chances with the American justice system.

For better or for worse, he happens to believe that he is right, that he was acting in America's best interests in releasing facts about U.S. government surveillance of Americans. So why is he not willing to take his chances in the American justice system, counting on his ability, with legal help, to make his case and retain his freedom?

There is an argument that says he will not do that because he, like so many other Americans as well as foreigners, believe that the American system of justice is no longer worthy of confidence. One look at how it has dealt with U.S. Army Pvt. Bradley Manning might make that point. He was held in solitary confinement and arguably was tortured. The whole process has dragged out for years, calling into question the continuing validity of U.S. constitutional guarantees of due process of law.

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks is a special piece of work, but he, too, has a righteous horror of what might happen to him if he fell into the hands of "American justice." What a shame it is that we have sunk to such a level that our system of justice evokes horrors comparable to that of Kazakhstan's.

We now have government of the government, by the government, for the government. This is not acceptable.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).


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