Dispatches from Beyond the Beltway: Devil in the Mirror

I moved last year to America from Washington, D.C.

Watching the Capitol dome disappear in my rearview mirror, my car stuffed with pant suits and flag lapel pins, I wondered what I would find in the “real” United States. 

It turns out that life in Washington isn’t all that different from life in the heartland, if you overlook the language barrier (bureaucratese vs. English). Coffee shops abound, and the legions of black SUVs just come with non-government license plates.

But few Americans feel that they live in the same country as Congress. Dissatisfaction is de rigueur; the air waves are positively gusty with angry voices demanding resignations, term limits and investigations.

Congress is the public’s piñata. An overwhelming 71% of Americans expressed disapproval of Congress in polls last month. Discontent is at historic highs and has been rising for several years. Congress, many Americans claim, doesn’t represent them. But they’re wrong.

We don’t actually dislike all of our members of Congress, or even most of them. Actions outweigh words, and by our actions Congress has a 94% approval rating. In 2008, voters failed to re-elect a mere 23 incumbents (6%) out of the 404 running. We railed against our elected leaders, demanding change, but we didn’t change much of anything. A staggering majority kept their jobs, with our blessing.

Americans are suffering from a crisis of responsibility. We claim we want to save tax dollars and reduce waste, but instead of choosing to fund projects through normal appropriations, local taxes, and responsible spending, voters clamor for special funding for our very own VIPs (Very Important Projects). We conveniently forget that the federal government’s money is simply our money by another name, and so we prefer to pull from the collective pot. Just not our own pockets.

Ironically, that’s exactly the sort of accusation Americans enjoy lobbing at our senators and representatives, whom we fervently accuse of wastefulness—in other districts. We like our infrastructure, our arts programs and the small business loans that made dotting our bucolic hamlet with coffee shops possible. We heart earmarks. We brake for big spending. We would like a new park downtown, better bridges, and more cancer research. Congress may bring home the barrel, but we greedily eat the pork.

Yet, there are a few hardy souls attempting to end the cycle of spending. They’re members of Congress. In March, with a flailing economy and a projected $15.9 billion in earmarks for fiscal 2010, Republican congressmen made a collective pledge to forgo all earmark requests, and the majority have stuck to it. In May, Minority Whip Eric Cantor enacted the unique “You Cut” program, giving visitors to his website a chance to cut spending; the project that receives the most votes each week goes to the floor for a vote. While their minority status has hampered Republican’s ability to successfully kill chosen projects, this hasn’t killed public enthusiasm. In just three months, more than one million visitors have voted to end various spending projects on You Cut.

The gulf between the takes and the take-nots will only widen in the November elections. While the GOP is fiscally fasting, Democrats continue to gluttonously pile every extra dollar on their plates. Conservatives will be left alone in opposing earmarks, while Democrats in the next district fill the coffers for road construction and halfway houses. They, along with greedy voters and local and state officials, may attempt to punish reticent spenders come November. It will be up to responsible Americans to end the culture of complaint, and finally vote with sense.