Opinion: To Make Government Work, You Have to Respect It

Americans malign but also rely on government workers

A WPA mural by artist Seymour Fogel at the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
A WPA mural by artist Seymour Fogel at the Wilbur J. Cohen Federal Building. (Carol M. Highsmith Archive/Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division)
Posted January 25, 2018 at 5:02am

Explore any part of the vast expanse of the Western United States, and you are sure to stumble across a plaque affixed to the corner of stone stairs leading to a pathway through a national park or monument. You will no doubt get similar unexpected knowledge from a sign hanging on the wall of a library in small-town America.

Things Americans take for granted, many of them, were financed by the federal government, built by U.S. workers, grateful for the Depression-era lifeline provided by the Works Progress Administration. Many of the roads, bridges and sidewalks that crisscross cities in every part of the country share the same provenance — the federal government everyone complains about.

It all works, somehow, until a shutdown, the latest version of which ended almost before it began. And boy did everyone breathe a sigh of relief when they learned the (much maligned) post office would keep sending and delivering through rain and hail, sleet and shutdown.

Americans grumble about high taxes and do-nothing government workers, as we drive on public roads, send our kids to public schools and eat the food and drink the water we trust some inspector has approved for safety.

The put-upon workers, who have seen their jobs devalued in the public eye and reduced in the current administration, find validation where they can, most recently in the Oscar-nominated film “Get Out,” where a Transportation Security Administration worker is an unexpected hero. (His slightly profane catchphrase, on how the TSA handles “stuff,” has become an unofficial battle cry for the low-paid airport screeners who are, when you think of it, our last protection against terrorists.)

Will the recent chaos during the briefest of shutdowns change the conventional judgment about government’s worth?

Not likely.

Just as some conservative policymakers decried any New Deal-type social program — and that disapproval eventually encompassed the Social Security and Medicare so many Americans rely on to fill far-from-luxurious needs — newer generations of politicians have found success with the mantra “government is the problem.” Though that statement is too simplistic to explain “Reaganomics” in full, it is a part of the view described as “trickle-down” or “free market,” depending on your particular leaning.

Not the A-Team

A close examination of the compromise that sped up the end of the most recent shutdown — one that merely pushed the crisis a few weeks down the road — does not make a great case for government competence.

It hinged on extending funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a bipartisan success when it was launched to take care of the needs of children of working-class families. Now the popular-with-the-public program has been reduced to a bargaining CHIP, pitting children against those brought to the U.S. illegally as children and now living, as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals rules insist, productive American lives.

There has been no mention of community health centers, still waiting for funding. Plus, the promise of progress on immigration policy debate and relief for “Dreamers” is looking wispier with each passing day.

Yet the alternative does not look pretty, either. If Americans want to observe the no-government rule taken to its purest conclusion, there are plenty of examples in the states.

The Kansas Legislature, led by Republicans and Democrats, in 2017 passed a $1.2 billion tax increase over the veto of Republican Gov. Sam Brownback in order to claw its way back from tax cuts that had walloped university budgets, highway projects, pension plans and more.

And while I always appreciated visiting South Carolina for some of the cheapest gas prices in the country, the trip, though slightly more expensive, will be a lot more pleasant now that Republicans and Democrats in that state’s Legislature approved, over Republican Gov. Henry McMaster’s veto, a needed infrastructure bill that will raise the gas tax and, hopefully, fill in the potholes.

Lasting contributions

During the Depression, government jobs earned a paycheck for families while building needed infrastructure and also provided art, literature and music to Americans — not a necessity, perhaps, but nourishing nonetheless. We know more about the history of the country through the narratives reported and recorded by workers paid to travel the land and take the stories down before history disappeared along with the storytellers.

No one wants waste, of course; every federal agency is certainly ripe for reform, every job for review and scrutiny.

That is a bit different, though, from having so little regard for what government does and has always done that State Department posts are left unfilled, Cabinet-level agencies look to the corporations they are supposed to regulate for guidance, and important positions, such as one that helps direct national drug control policy, are staffed with political loyalists rather than professionals.

It takes a shutdown, however brief, to appreciate how easy it is to complain about things we take for granted.

Maybe it’s time to take a closer look at the politicians who, for years, have been elected to get the government out of our business, when their own business is making that government work for us. Once they get to Washington, many spend too much time finagling ways to stay there, without getting much actual legislating done.

I suppose that’s one way to prove the point government doesn’t work.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.