Thursday, April 4, 2013

RICHARD GREENE: With engagement it is far easier to impact politics at City Hall

While attending a meeting this week with our member of Congress, Joe Barton, discussion among the 30 or so participants confirmed something I tell my UT Arlington students all the time.

I explain their potential as fully engaged citizens in a democracy and how they can make a difference. In doing so, I point them to city hall, not Washington.

Let me quickly say that I would never suggest that they don’t matter when it comes to shaping national public policy; I just emphasize the reality of their local influence in those things that surround their daily lives.

The meeting with Congressman Barton perfectly illustrates how this works. Joe’s agenda for the meeting included the federal budget, our incalculable national debt, and the practice in Washington of spending more money that the government receives.

He asked the audience if they favored a balanced federal budget. Only one person didn’t raise his hand. Having established that the preference of this segment of the public was to balance the budget, he then asked how soon. 

Richard Greene

“In a year or two?” he suggested – a couple of hands went up. “Twenty years?” – no hands. He went on to say that he had supported a budget bill that had been adopted by the House of Representatives that would balance the budget in 10 years.

This audience thought that was too long and the consensus was to get the federal budget balanced in five years. Okay, the will of the people has been delivered to their congressman. Now comes the hard part.

Joe then reviewed where the government was spending the most money. Social Security, national defense, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest payments on the debt are the top five and account for about 70 percent of all federal expenditures.

Reductions in any of these categories would have the most impact and, at least in theory, could result in a balanced budget.

“Where,” he then asked, “should the cuts come from?”

“Well,” a participant offered, “we’ve got to cut into those entitlement programs.”

That meant reductions should be made in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

“But,” the speaker continued, “we have to honor our contracts.” That suggestion then resulted in a discussion about Washington’s definition of “contract.”

Nobody in the room offered support for cutting Social Security payments to those already receiving them or, for that matter, anyone within 10 years of becoming eligible for the promised retirement money the government had forced them to set aside during their lifetime of work.

Comments about how to amend the Social Security contract then demonstrated the difficulty in finding an acceptable answer. That it takes a majority of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate and the president’s signature to amend that contract further confounded the discussion. Just like the entire congress, Joe’s audience was way short of a majority to provide an answer.

Then the discussion turned to Medicare and Medicaid. Part of Medicare is also a contract that taxpayers have had to pay and part of Medicare is optional at extra cost. Medicaid addresses the needs of the elderly, the very young, the disabled, and the poor and varies from state to state, as the program is a partnership between the federal government and the states.

Just like the outcome on the Social Security question, there was frustration in the room that expressed itself when a participant declared, “Well, someone sure should do something about these programs.”

Ideas of cutting the budget for our nation’s defense were quickly reduced to references of cutting “foreign aid.” This was a Republican meeting and the idea of cutting the military does not produce very much support among members of the party who see our national security as the top priority of the government. Joe said there would be defense cuts but such would not ever be enough to balance the budget.

Those in attendance probably left the meeting feeling good about participating but rather empty handed when it comes to having produced any answers much less any results.

Then I thought about the fact that the city council would be meeting later that evening – just like they do every week. Citizens are welcome at any such meeting. They even get to walk up to the microphone and tell their elected representatives what they would like to see happen, or not happen, in their hometown.

Unlike the gridlock in Washington, things actually get done at the local level. Unlike the mysteries of Washington and its appearance of being impossible to influence or even approach, here a committed few can bring about desired outcomes.

From everyday things like designing and delivering a decent road network, or being sure we have enough police officers and firefighters to keep us safe, and some nice parks to enjoy are things all actually under the control of the people.

Safe drinking water, an efficient and dependable sewage disposal system, garbage collection, quality public education, economic opportunity and jobs are the kinds of things We the People make happen by our participation.

Sometimes we even move mountains. Would you like to be part of one of the few, privileged host cities for Major League Baseball and the National Football League? You get to decide.

A former speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.” He was trying to say that ultimately the people rule. It’s just much harder to believe that when we see how they do things in Washington compared to how we do them locally.

Local elections are coming up soon; we’re going to elect a mayor and some city council members. Now would be a good time for people to realize why that matters.

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.

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