In his latest EC from DC column, Fifth District Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., offers his thoughts on recent events, including Americans' loss of faith in government:
This has been quite a week. The 24-hour news cycle and penchant for hyperbole have given the impression the world is coming to an end, up is down, and left is right. Most weeks, I would say the media are way off in helter-skelter land. This week, the hyperbole might be a bit closer to reality.
With Haiti, the loss of a super-majority in the Senate, the de-railing of Health Care reform, the Supreme Court unleashing special interests on the next election cycle, a cacophony of bankers crying that Congress dare criticize their actions, the economy still sputtering and folks just wanting to find work again — it’s been eventful to say the least.
I have been asked quite a lot what to make of it all.
I am in the “deep breath” school of thought. I know that is not what many of my liberal friends want to hear. However, there is a deeper problem emerging that, while reflected in electoral losses, is more importantly a sign of a greater loss. Our nation’s government has always relied on the faith and trust of the people. Since Vietnam and Watergate, that trust has been eroding. A year ago there was goodwill flowing like a river, and a renewed trust in government. This is our greatest loss this year.
Let me be clear. I was born in a time where the government had laws that legalized discrimination and mistreatment of me, my family, and friends. I grew up in a nation where I was a second-class citizen, who did not enjoy the full protection of the law or access to the American dream. It was difficult to trust a government capable of institutionalized racism.
But during this week when we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, I am reminded that while we did not fully trust the government, the working theory of the civil rights movement was a faith that, when confronted, our nation’s government would do the right thing. In retrospect it was a crazy and perhaps naïve notion. The core of the movement preached by Dr. King, even while he was being wire-tapped by the federal government was that with time and pressure we could trust that same government to right injustice.
He said that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Perhaps it is appropriate that as we celebrate Dr. King we are confronted with this series of challenging national events. What he knew better than just about anyone was that change only can occur with the will of the people. It is the cornerstone of non-violent protest. When a group is gathered in peace, and acted upon with violence, people generally side with the peaceful. Popular support was the only means by which the civil rights bill would pass.
This brings me to health care reform. A year ago 70 percent of people favored overhauling our health care system. I cannot tell you how often people stopped me to express their frustration with a system that did not work for them. For those with insurance, so much money was going to premiums with little service in return. For everyone else, health care had become a privilege they could not afford, instead of a right secured by the world’s leading superpower.
Now less than 40 percent favor the measures being debated in Congress.
There are lots of reasons for the decline. It is easy to favor health care reform in the abstract and more difficult to get behind a specific proposal. And there is not just one proposal; there are two very different measures, one out of the House and the other out of the Senate.
There have been lies and counter lies. Entire news cycles have been giddy with every misstep and falter. The bills have been mishandled, miscommunicated and misunderstood.
But it is more than that. In Congress we rarely deal with transformative legislation that affects every single American. When it has happened in our history, whether with Social Security or Civil Rights, there has been a bipartisan willingness to work together. None of our nation’s cornerstone legislation has passed without some votes from the minority. The difficulty with this bill is two fold. There is clearly a lack of trust between the parties. Exploitation and explosion seem to be standard operating procedure. When it becomes more important to score a point than to fix the problem, bad choices are made. Both parties are guilty on that score.
So where does that leave us?
There are those who would propose that we ram through a proposal (probably the Senate version) quickly. This is a bad idea. First because the Senate version leaves much to be desired, covers fewer Americans, has some dubious tax proposals and has some crazy deals for states like Nebraska that do not serve the common good. But, more importantly it is a bad idea because it does not help to build trust — either between parties or between the government and the people.
I think we need to take a moment to step back and take a hard look at the core goals of reform: 1) give affordable access to all Americans, 2) reform the insurance industry to prevent abuses, 3) help small businesses better afford coverage for their employees’ families, and 4) reduce the cost of health care in the long term.
I think there is almost universal agreement that we have to deal with these four goals in the short term, or the results will be a significantly less healthy population and exploding insurance costs that neither your household nor the federal government can afford.
Now, I am not naïve enough to think that this is anything other than a political process. But, I think we would all be served better if we acted a little more like grown ups. Democrats need to realize that we are not the sole purveyors of good ideas on the planet. Republicans need to constructively participate — enough with the tantrums and stomping away from the table.
This is an election year, which means that many will choose to put their own careers ahead of the needs of the nation. The trust we desperately need will be hard to come by and difficult to build.
But, I will leave you with a glimmer of hope. On Monday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I was asked to speak for the Ministry Associations at their city-wide celebration, which was held at the Concord Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This is a huge church with a very nice young senior pastor. As some know, I grew up not that far from downtown Dallas. It is where I was recruited into the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and formally began my civil rights work.
As I was looking into the crowd, I spotted a Republican colleague — Congressman Jeb Hensarling (TX-5). He had come to hear me speak, which is a very kind gesture in itself, but even more inspiring if you look at Rep. Hensarling’s voting record. We could not possibly be more opposite. We both serve on the Financial Services Committee, and we often sit together and talk about our policy issues. There are not many on my side of the aisle that would call him a friend. But, he and I have had a good deal of conversation and while we disagree, I am proud to say we have one of the most interesting friendships in Congress.
I did not expect him to be in the audience Monday. And yet, there he was to both pay tribute to Dr. King, but in his gesture, fulfill the spirit of Dr. King’s legacy.
As we go about the people’s work in the coming weeks, I think we would all be served to think about that legacy — a legacy that relied on trust, good will and common purpose to right the wrongs of our nation.