Some questions for Idaho’s congressmen

March 4, 2018 GMT

Can anyone living in the U.S. today remember a time when the state of our politics was so mesmerizing—for the wrong reasons. You can scarcely avert your eyes from the daily breaking news. It’s not just that our partisan divisions seem off the chart — we had that earlier in the 1960s with the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and the counter-culture. What’s different this time is that today’s partisan schisms seem more entrenched at the highest levels of government, in all three major branches. Result: alarming dysfunctionality.

Bulwarks of our democracy—institutions and practices that we have long taken for granted to steady the ship of state—are under siege by the president and his minions. These include our justice and law-enforcement systems and our established, fact-based free press. Similarly challenged is our commitment, in principle at least, to the idea of America as a welcoming melting pot, a country offering opportunity to immigrants and fair treatment regardless of race, ethnicity, and religion.

These fissures make clear that our democracy is in a more fragile state than most among us realize.

When the people become disillusioned with government or indifferent, they become more vulnerable to demagoguery—consider our last campaign cycle. The crying need at present for a citizenry informed by real (not “alternative”) facts and holistic thinking cannot be overstated.

Confidence in government is at or near an all-time low. President Trump’s demeanor, his disregard for truth, his immature school-yard bullying, his careless and irresponsible use of language, his divisive rhetoric and policies, his ham-handed approach to international relations—all contribute greatly to this disillusionment. Trump’s shortcomings as our leader are glaringly obvious; critiquing him is like picking the lowest of low-hanging fruit. But he is by no means solely responsible for the present state of things. Nor is the extremely politicized Supreme Court, dismaying as its recently intensified ideological split is.

Congress in particular has greatly lost stature in the eyes of the majority of Americans. Most of us believe with good reason that powerful special interests dictate legislation. (Lobbyists write much of what becomes law.) It’s bad enough to see our elected Republican representatives cowed by a bullying President, but it’s much worse that the big money of wealthy “puppetmeisters” and corporations dominates Congressional outcomes. As Carl Bernstein observed recently, “Congress is a system of legalized bribery.”

Jockeying for party advantage and the compulsion to be reelected seem to matter more to many members of Congress than speaking up independently of party and finding practical solutions to our nation’s most pressing problems. It must be acknowledged that this sad state of Congress predates Trump.

(Is there any more revolting spectacle than watching the state-of-the-union addresses of recent Presidents, with one party repeatedly clapping like so many North Koreans while the other party sits conspicuously silent? Wouldn’t it be refreshing if applause on these occasions was banned outright to remove the visible and audible reinforcement of division amongst us? And while we’re at it, wouldn’t it be a grand thing if regularly in the Senate and House Chambers instead of locating members by party separately across the aisle from each other, they were seated alphabetically by their last names—maybe then we could get Republicans and Democrats talking to each other again.)

With this as prelude, let me pose some pointed questions to Idaho’s Congressional delegation, Messrs. Crapo, Risch, Simpson, and Labrador:

1—Honestly, how could you vote for that deeply flawed tax reform bill, the one predicted to increase the national debt by well over a trillion dollars? The new law is not all bad; some adjustment to corporate rates seems justified, and some relief to the middle class can be defended perhaps. But in your pandering zeal, you Republicans overdid it. You cut rates too sharply, most especially the huge windfall for the super rich (including the likes of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who have said they should be paying more in tax, not less). How could the party of fiscal conservatism ignore the dire consequences of that burgeoning debt? At this rate, given the government’s mandatory financial obligations and our demographic projections, we are digging an ever-deeper, dangerous hole, in which servicing the debt will cut deeply into limited discretionary spending.

Conventional economic wisdom says that to stimulate the economy, the government can justify over-spending its income in economic down times. But it should pay down the debt in good times, or at the least balance the budget. We are currently at full employment, with strong economic indicators. Shouldn’t that encourage more fiscal restraint? If many in the country are not doing well, it’s not because the economy isn’t strong; corporations are flourishing. It’s rather a problem of how profits are unfairly distributed.

The tired rationale for excessive cuts in the new tax law is that “amazing” resulting growth will generate enough to pay for it all. Most independent economists consider this optimism highly unrealistic. Important variables requisite for unusual growth are not currently aligned, they say. Nonetheless, the government is borrowing money to gamble recklessly on a theoretical hunch. Meanwhile, it seems—budgetarily speaking—we’re going to indulge ourselves even more.

2—Concerning allocations in the new budget, how can you, Idaho’s representatives, support the massive increases in military spending, even as appropriations for soft power in the State Department, for environmental protection in the EPA , and for other social safety-net programs suffer draconian cuts? Notwithstanding Trump’s ridiculous assertion that “our military is a total disaster” (while in the next breath he brags how powerful we are), we now spend more on defense than the next eight highest-spending military countries combined. Shouldn’t that be enough already? But “increase the military spending” is a political phrase the Republicans love to conjure with. Surely some of that money could better be saved to help balance our budget; or if not that, shouldn’t it at least go for programs that benefit the struggling middle class and the poor amongst us. Or on infrastructure? (The Trump infrastructure plan dumps most of the fiscal responsibility on states, states struggling already to stay solvent, or on private developers like himself who will of course extract their pound of flesh.) Did Congress seriously analyze these realities before voting in a mad rush?

3—When are we going to hear our delegation speak out to do something about the corrupting influence of big money on our democracy? Have any of you advanced ideas for curtailing the size of political contributions, or shortening our ridiculously long election cycle, or limiting the amount of money wasted on mindless campaign advertising? Or do you simply like the status quo? Will any of you do the right thing and speak out against the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, that infamous blow against “government of the people, . . ., for the people”? Did you or anyone question Neil Gorsuch about that when his appointment was debated?

4—Why can’t bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress, with the clear support of the majority of Americans, do the right thing by the DACA Dreamers? How about a stand-alone vote on their fate instead of allowing President Trump to go back on his word, manipulate the issue, and hold Congress hostage? Did any of you speak up to get this issue resolved? Or is open floor debate even allowed when leaders are desperate to get a win at any cost? It appears at times that there is no collective backbone in Congress. Or is the internal machinery of the legislative process now so dysfunctional that even clearly popular bipartisan measures are dead on arrival?

5—Richard Nixon led the way in cleaning up America’s air and water. Are you and your fellow Republicans today really willing to allow the current Administration to revoke by degrees that desirable reclamation by decimating the EPA? Why aren’t you more vocal in criticizing Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords? Or are you really among those “flat-earthers” who refuse to acknowledge the overwhelming science data re global warming and the importance of American leadership in addressing this existential, world-wide problem?

6—Are you among those Republicans who oppose (or are cravenly silent about) the Muller investigation into Russian interference in our elections and the possible compromising relationship of Trump with the Russian government and its surrogates? How can anyone who cares about America and its democratic institutions stand idly by and not want to turn up all stones regarding these matters? If Trump has nothing to hide, why does he not vigorously encourage the investigation and cooperate fully? In spite of his shameless attempts to undermine it, shouldn’t you, our representatives, put America’s interests above party and speak up unequivocally to support the investigation?

7—Gun violence: yet another mass murder in an American school, more expressions of empty sentiment—and very little action. America uniquely has this problem, this epidemic. Are we the stupidest developed country in the world? Granted, addressing gun violence is a multi-faceted challenge, but any honest analysis must acknowledge that military-style assault rifles are a common thread in the carnage. There is no legitimate reason that civilians need such weapons, nor does any reasonable reading of our Constitution grant such a right. That so many such mass-killing weapons already are owned by Americans is no argument for allowing their further proliferation. THEY SHOULD BE BANNED—and a majority of Americans nationwide agree on this. Do any of the four of you have sufficient good sense, integrity, and courage to acknowledge this, defy the all-powerful NRA, risk defeat in your reelection bid, and help persuade other Republicans in Congress to do the right thing?

I grant that politics in Washington can be complex and nuanced. We, your constituents, do not see all the messy complications that confront you. But we are trying to understand. And when it appears that our spokesmen are timid and not speaking, when it appears they are supporting positions based on party pressure and/or special-interest money and lobbying, positions that to common sense seem contrary to our common interests and therefore unsupportable, we would like to know why. Hence, these honest questions directed to the four of you.

H. Wayne Schow, a native Idahoan, is a professor of English emeritus at Idaho State University. Schow lives in Pocatello.