Friday, May 6, 2016

John Philip Sousa March

Last week was spent in class in Washington, DC.  The class is run by Georgetown's Government Affairs Institute, and it provides people from the Executive branch with a chance to understand the legislative process.  Lecturers included a congressman, several staffers, a political historian, a few journalists, lobbyists... - all people who have a unique perspective on what is happening within the beltway.

Every lecture was amazing.  The lectures showed us why things work the way they do, why the don't work when they don't, and what the reasoning was behind making it function (?) that way.  It was like high school civics class by people for whom that is their passion.  I geeked out all week long.  I could not drink the coffee fast enough to keep my brain up with all of the connections they were offering.

The one thing that surprised me was an unspoken theme of the entire class.  Every single person who spoke provided us with insight into the people who make our government run, and all of them talked about the same thing without ever saying the word.


Turns out that the whole sausage-making process that comprises our government runs on patriotism.

These lecturers were not 'pie-in-the-sky' innocents nor are they ignorant of what is truly going on in Washington.  They are battle-hardened veterans of burrocratic and legislative conflicts.  They know what is failing in the system, and they are horrified by some of the things that they see.

But they see those things, and roll up their sleeves.  And, even more importantly, they see that same quality in the people around them.

I asked questions throughout the class (surprised?), but all of my real questions were some variant of  'Is there cause for optimism?'

I am worried about the country.  I worry that we are getting farther and farther away from being able to talk about things, be it police brutality, or gay rights, racial issues, or guns.  And I fear that when we stop talking, we start fighting.  And escalating.

So my question, couched in all of the best classroom language, was one that comes from my core.  Is there reason for hope?

The immediate reaction was, Of Course Not.  The precipice on which we dangle is unlike any we have seen.  We are talking less and are angrier than ever.  Even those who are so inclined, find it difficult to work together.  One of my favorite stories was of a couple of senators who worked together to get a compromised piece of legislation together.  In the end, one senator was going to be facing some really rough going as a result of working with the opposite side, and the way they got around the problem was to call each other names in the press.  That rotten so-and-so, unwilling to compromise, I can't work with him, he is the worst of what his party represents.  We got this legislation done DESPITE him, rather than because of his influence.

And it worked.  The representative got re-elected.  The legislation got passed.

The system is horribly broken, the lecturers all said.  And yet,
it is functioning perfectly, because people who come and dedicate their lives to the work are doing the right thing, in the most difficult way possible.  The legislators, and their staff, and the lobbyists, and everyone involved with the process are all patriots.

It was completely unexpected.  I did not expect the lecturers to come and provide me with hope for our system.  My viewpoint, reinforced by a decade of working in the federal bureaucracy, is that we are inefficient and ineffective.  And I expected the denizens of the Beltway to be even worse.

I should have known better.  My agency, in the place where I worked for 9 years, is well hated and mistrusted.  And I know them to be among the hardest-working, most dilligent, most devoted public servants I have ever met.  We are villified and pilloried in the media, and everyone thinks they know what we do.  And they are wrong.  So if New Orleans can so misjudge the actions of my group, why would I expect to actually know what the Congress is really doing?

Maybe the group of lecturers were chosen for an optimistic bent.  Maybe the group self-selects, and the DC cynics don't give speeches to earnest, rosy-cheeked burrocrats from the field.

But maybe, just maybe, there is cause for hope.  That the people who work as civil servants actually view it as service.

Maybe we are doing a better job than we can see from inside our own bubble.

And maybe that patriotism is what really does bind us together, despite ideological differences.

I sure hope so.

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