My Way or The Highway Is Not the Way to Govern

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It has been an almost universal adage that those inside the interstate beltway that circles Washington D.C. are out of touch with the rest of America. I first heard that phrase when I talked with seniors after I began working in the public policy arena in 1996 and the usage has only increased over the past 27 years. There was always a reference to “inside the beltway thinking” that many believed was driven by incentives that had nothing to do with the needs of Middle America seniors. It’s hard to convince them otherwise when year after year we come to the brink of default, as we did over the debt ceiling debate, and now to the brink of shutting down the government, as we just witnessed when Congress failed to pass the funding bills that finance our country. Some have said that our country has grown accustomed to chaos in the capital, that we have come to expect crisis, that dysfunction is the new normal. I disagree. People I talk to (especially seniors) are really worried about what Congress is doing and aren’t willing to accept this as the new normal. This is borne out by the fact that nearly 3 out of 4 Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Congress. My focus today is not on who’s fault this chaos is but how this chaos affects older Americans.

I’m sure you get the same click bait ads that I get on your phones or computer, headlines that are tailored toward your age, your interests and where you live. The minute there was word of a possible government shutdown, I began to get notices on my different feeds wanting me to click on a link to find out if my Social Security check would be stopped or that Medicare benefits would be curtailed because of the shutdown. While these web sites are almost never a good source of information, it is true that this government funding impasse could cause delays in some government programs which causes stress and anxiety, especially among those who rely heavily on their monthly Social Security check.

The recent debt ceiling debacle did threaten to stop or delay Social Security checks and the current funding impasse would furlough many government workers. While seniors would continue to receive their social security checks during a government shutdown, about 15% of the Social Security Administration’s staff would be furloughed. This could mean the delay or suspension of benefit verifications, replacement of Medicare cards and determinations on disability. Veterans (which includes me) could be affected since regional offices could be closed if the government shutdown occurs. These are just a few of the possible impacts on older Americans that came awfully close to becoming a reality.

Just a few days ago everyone was convinced that a shutdown was inevitable. It was only through a last-minute deal that included both Republican and Democrats that the shutdown was delayed in hopes that final funding legislation before the middle of the November deadline. I was relieved, as I think other seniors were that Congress could reach a deal that would fund are nation… I was wrong. The Speaker of the House was going to be punished for preventing the government shutdown, since it required a few votes from Democrats.

After I finished watching the historic debate and final vote that removed the current Speaker of the House, I  realized that the House would be spending at least a fourth of the 45-day extension trying to select another speaker. Nothing else can get done until that happens, and it could become a long-drawn-out affair. Whether you believed the representative from Florida and his allies or those in the Republican Caucus who wanted to retain the Speaker during the debate, the final vote assured that the next days or weeks will be spent, not working on the important funding legislation, but trying to elect a new Speaker who will inherit the almost impossible task of bringing together a fractured House of Representatives to ensure our nation continues to operate. All this accomplishes is to continue the stress and worry of those older Americans who depend on our government to support them in their later years.

Everyone can, and will, blame either the Republicans or the Democrats, but the fact of the matter is, it’s the whole Washington political ineptness that has devolved into a state of chaos such that our lawmakers cannot accomplish the basic task of funding our government. Us older Americans can remember when our government could pass critical legislation when needed and wasn’t castigated for reaching across the aisle. When was the last time you heard the phrase, “we didn’t let perfect be the enemy of good”? This phrase referred to a time when both parties and ultimately both houses would work together and compromise to pass legislation that didn’t completely please everyone but could please enough people to be voted into law. I don’t see this happening anytime in the near future due to our polarized government.

OK, my temper tantrum is now over, at least for a few minutes. My point here is… we elect those law makers, and our vote is really powerful. There are also things we can do that makes a difference between votes. Let your voices be heard. Find good people who will support your values at the county, state and federal levels and volunteer for them. Let them know you support them. I’m tired of standing by and seeing our lawmakers do, or not do, things that increase the anxiety of seniors. These are times we should be worrying about what to get our grandkids for Christmas, not whether our Social Security check is going to show up in our mailbox or checking account. We may be old, but we have the time and the inclination to still make a difference. I for one am going to get involved.

Best, Thair

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