Two recent Post and Courier editorials praised veterans for forcing access to war memorials that were closed because of the present federal government shutdown. Those editorials also bemoaned the closing of other national monuments and facilities, noted that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives has offered proposals to re-open parts of the government and railed against the president and the majority Democratic Senate for refusing to negotiate.
Those creatively crafted editorials failed to note the interrelated nature of governmental function. They also totally ignored both the workings of constitutional representative democracy and the history of congressional intransigence since the election of President Barack Obama — and especially since the 2010 general election.
The imagery of veterans forcing access to memorials may be visually stirring, but it ignores the broader and less visible impact of the shutdown on our veterans. The processing of a severe backlog of disability claims by those who sacrificed their health defending our nation has slowed to a crawl with the closure of the Veterans Administration. Some older veterans who have lost their mobility are no longer receiving at least one decent meal a day from Meals on Wheels. Veterans coping with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder now have limited access to counseling services.
What’s happening to our veterans is also happening in other ways to other citizens of modest means — many of whom work for pitiably low wages and count on supplementary governmental assistance to make ends meet. It’s easy, in the midst of shrill rhetoric, to forget that what government does in great and small ways impacts people’s lives.
Some monuments and historic sites may appear not to need staffing, but restrooms, public spaces and grounds still have to be cleaned and security still has to be provided. The recent vandalism of the Lincoln Memorial with red paint is proof of that. Some federal security personnel — like those who recently responded to a situation involving a disturbed citizen at the White House and the Capitol — are still compelled to work although they receive no salary during the shutdown. Historical sites that seem to be “low maintenance” actually require consistent logistical support from those who are now being denied their salaries by mean spirited people.
It’s easy to say that the president and the Democratic controlled Senate should negotiate, but the reality is that they’ve tried with minimal success since the 2010 Tea Party electoral wave swamped the halls of government with ideological sewage. Members of Congress elected in that wave came to Washington with the stated goal of obstructing and shutting down government, were gleeful in the days leading up to the shutdown and are still gleeful in the wake of the shutdown. They even held a congressional “pep rally” to celebrate the approaching shutdown.
Their version of “negotiation” is to fund those parts of the government that they like and to leave other parts underfunded or unfunded. The present shutdown directly resulted from their determination to de-fund the Affordable Care Act, which was passed by both Houses of Congress, signed by the president, legally affirmed by the United States Supreme Court, politically affirmed by the 2012 presidential election and is now drawing interest from millions in its first weeks of open enrollment.
If self-serving members of Congress are allowed to derail representative democracy by whining like spoiled brats until they get their way, they could next easily seek to de-fund the Department of Justice to prevent the enforcement of civil rights laws. It’s disingenuous and ludicrous for those who have staunchly refused to work with the president since 2010 to suddenly embrace negotiation. Their track record shows that they seek not negotiation with but unconditional surrender by those who don’t share their views.
One of the aforementioned editorials criticizes President Obama’s “regrettable unwillingness to negotiate.” I celebrate his courageous determination to not let a small band of rowdy political hooligans hijack our constitutionally mandated representative democracy. Perhaps when the vast majority of decent and reasonable Republicans in Congress abandon their fear of Tea Party primary challengers and do what’s right instead of what’s politically expedient, all parties can come to the table in good faith, engage in true negotiation and restore political sanity in Washington. It’s badly needed.
The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is presiding Elder of the Beaufort District of the AME Church and first vice president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.