“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got till it’s gone?”
When Joni Mitchell sang that line, “paved paradise” in the song “Big Yellow Taxi,” she was referring t o the environment, specifically green space, but today it might well imply something else: government, specifically the federal government.
For decades, conservatives have pounded the message that regardless of the challenge, except for military defense, the United States government was more problem than solution. They mockingly repeated the line “I’m from the federal government, and I’m here to help you.”
Of course, when given the chance to govern, the conservatives didn’t operate that way. Ronald Reagan tripled the national debt and expanded government during his two terms. So did George W. Bush. Having now served in Congress for more than 13 years, I recognize the many failings of government, but I also am acutely aware of how important all levels of government are.
Not everyone is as aware.
Several years ago, I was asked to go to Yale and talk with med and premed students about the Affordable Care Act. In the course of two days I met with many brilliant young people, or maybe I should say otherwise brilliant young people. I was stunned by the number of Yalies who said they didn’t pay attention to politics because it didn’t mean anything to their lives.
I pushed back immediately to them: “And you’re going into medicine?” I asked rhetorically. “Do you realize that the federal government will impact what you are paid and how you practice? If you’re going into research, the government will be funding your research. You’d better pay attention to politics.”
When I meet with young people, even 10-year-old students in their classes, I talk about how government affects their families’ daily lives. How it affects their health care. How the government will help them go to college. How the government makes sure they have clean air and water.
That is one reason our abandonment of civics education in school is so dangerous. If we don’t know what government is supposed to do and how it is supposed to operate, there can be no accountability for public officials. More importantly, if we don’t care what government does, we are at its mercy. That’s why I tell anyone who doesn’t vote that not voting is the same thing as voting for the person you don’t want. It should be sadly evident by now that Donald Trump did not study civics.
He is clueless about what government is supposed to do and how it is supposed to operate. He has spent the first three years of his term hollowing out virtually every agency of government and appointing appallingly unqualified people to fill the most important positions.
And now the chicken hawk has come home to roost. The sky is falling, at least temporarily, and all eyes have turned to the federal government and specifically President Donald Trump. For the first time last week, Trump decided he had better look like he understood government’s role instead of diverting attention to China, the fake news, the deep state, governors and apparently even his son-in-law. Unfortunately, in the present situation, better late than never means substantial damage to Americans.
But we can leave the exit interview for next January. The point of this column is that government is important. It is critical. Our system of government has been a model for the world for more than two centuries. It saved us in 2008, in 1933, and it will, despite Donald Trump’s incompetence, save us in 2020. We all need to remember that when the world gets past this pandemic crisis, we must care a lot more about who runs our governments — federal, state and local — and demand the best governments possible.
Abraham Lincoln famously said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but can not do at all, or can not so well do, for themselves.” He also should have said (and maybe somewhere he did) that the government has to be ready and willing at all times, to meet their citizens’ needs.
Because you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. •
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is now chairman of the House Budget Committee.