The Responsibility Is Ours

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

We have a new political season upon us. The Minnesota Legislature has adjourned failing to get essential bonding and transportation funding bills completed for the second year in a row. Congress remains bitterly divided and incapable of showing leadership on major problems facing the U.S. Members of both bodies will be seeking re-election this fall.

A lot of people who look at the failures of both the Minnesota Legislature and Congress will say, “Throw them all out” or “Let’s implement term limits.” We have problems with both these arguments.

First if you throw them all out, you are getting rid of some very good public servants – people who truly believe in their mission to do the best for their constituents possible. It is true that too many who go to the state or federal capitols seek election for personal agendas, power, or to boost their egos – all of which get supercharged once they get elected and walk the marble halls of a capitol with thousands seeking their attention.

That supercharged ego can give them a sense of entitlement that leads them to cross lines, violating both a sense of ethics and law. We also know the longer many serve, the more tone deaf they become to the real needs of their constituents.

Still, it is up to citizens to pay attention to what their elected officials are doing and selectively throw out the ones who are self-serving and roadblocks to constructive governing. However, that never happens.

At the local level, voters generally like their state legislator, U.S. Senator or member of the U.S. House. It is all the other bums who are the problem. So we returned well over 90 percent of the members of Congress to Washington, D.C., to continue the same cycle that gets us so angry and disillusioned. We also re-elected a large percentage of those who serve in the state House and Senate.

Further, if we did throw out all the incumbents we would be left with governmental bodies whose members were almost completely lacking in the knowledge necessary to lead the state or country through the long list of complex issues faced each session.

At both the state and federal levels of government there are issues that are so complex that they take years to understand – banking, defense, labor, agriculture, commerce, trade and foreign relations, are just a few. We once asked Rep. Collin Peterson how long it takes someone to fully understand the massive farm bill that is passed by Congress every five years. Peterson, who served as the chair of the House Agriculture Committee when the Democrats last controlled the House and is now the ranking member on the committee, said 10 years.

So by setting term limits we would be throwing people out of office who after years of service are finally in a position to best comprehend the challenges that face our state or nation. Also, by throwing out the elected representatives you empower the career political staffs that serve for decades. Newly elected officials would have to heavily rely on the “experts” in their parties in St. Paul and Washington to guide them on how to interpret the issues before them.

Our governments at both the state and federal levels have become increasing dysfunctional as they have become more partisan.

Partisanship is the fault of political parties that draw electoral maps that ensure safe districts for the members of their party. Fewer and fewer members of Congress, in particular, as well as the Minnesota Legislature, live in districts where they have to appeal to and serve a broad spectrum of their electorate. They can pander to a base that makes up a small minority of the total electorate and be assured of winning re-election.

Political parties also use their clout to strictly enforce dictates that a member vote the party position. A moderate in a party who votes against the party line from time to time can be relegated to low-level committees and out-of-the way office space.

Citizens also share in the responsibility for our dysfunctional government by failing to participate in primary and general elections. When the average citizen shows up, it ensures more moderate candidates get nominated to run on their party’s ticket. When only the fringes of parties show up to select who will be on the ballot in the fall, we often get candidates with extreme beliefs.

Those extreme beliefs clash with an essential fundamental of governing in a democracy – reaching consensus – compromising. The governing thought of, “We will give you some of what you want as long as we get some of what we want,” is disappearing. Too often these days reaching a compromise through developing a consensus on how to face the state or nation’s problems is an exercise in futility.

So before you say, “Throw the bums out” or “Set term limits,” you might want to consider your role in creating the problems we face today. Are you doing your job as a citizen by attending meetings, by writing your member of Congress or the state Legislature, by following the news, by writing letters to the editor of your local newspaper to comment on issues you find important, and by attending a caucus and voting in the general election?

Responsibility of citizens in a democracy is to educate themselves on the issues and become part of the process.

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