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Input from home

Posted: May 24, 2013 8:49 a.m.
Updated: May 27, 2013 5:00 a.m.

I know I should probably write about the current multiple scandals in Washington. And with the investigations into the Benghazi terrorist attacks, the revelation of the Department of Justice pulling the Associated Press’ phone records, and the outrageous political vendetta being revealed at the IRS, there would certainly be no shortage of material.

That said, I recently read a commentary on those scandals -- and the way they are being pursued -- that actually bothers me as much as the misdeeds themselves. 

Apparently, some people are using the current state of affairs in Washington to suggest that our government has become completely untrustworthy and unresponsive. And I am not speaking here of the basic sort of skepticism that I think is healthy for our nation (after all, the country was founded by people who were deeply skeptical of government -- indeed a large part of the Constitution is dedicated to limiting government). I am talking about something much deeper: the concern that people can no longer influence the outcomes; that politicians “just don’t listen;” that the government is losing its credibility.

The complaints come from both sides of the aisle: from conservatives who simply cannot believe that the President was re-elected, to liberals and progressives who just can’t grasp why we don’t have stricter gun control and higher taxes on the “wealthy.”

Anyway, the reason I mention it is that I just finished my springtime series of town hall meetings all over South Carolina. My experiences there simply confirm for me that representative democracy, and our Republic which it supports, are alive and well.

I’ve lost count of the number of town halls I’ve hosted over the last two and a half years. It’s probably near 40 now, not including our telephone town halls and the Twitter/Facebook events. All told we’ve probably heard from more than 100,000 people. And one question I get again and again is “Do politicians really listen to people?” or “Does it really help to write your Congressman?”

I can assure you that the answer is an unmitigated “yes.” In fact, I can prove it to you:

• In Fort Mill, somebody asked me if I could find a way to help save money by closing all of the unused bank accounts that the government has (and that cost us several millions of dollars a year in bank fees). That seemed like a good idea to me. I went back to Washington and cosponsored a bill that would do just that.

• In Sumter, a gentleman asked me about the advisability of having different funding methods for air traffic controllers at smaller airfields. We sent a letter to the FAA on exactly that issue the next day.

• And my favorite example was the young girl who came to my office to teach me about government funding for “orphan drugs.” These are drugs to treat conditions which only a relatively small number of people have -- and as a result, private pharmaceutical companies cannot justify the costs of developing treatments. Put another way, so few people have these diseases that, but for government funding, no research would be conducted. (The two examples I can think of, by the way, are cystic fibrosis and sickle-cell anemia.) As a direct result of that young lady’s efforts, research on orphan drugs is one of the very few areas where I support additional government spending.

If you go to a town hall meeting and ask me to vote to use taxpayer dollars to fund abortions, is that going to change my mind on the issue? Simply put: no. There are, after all, certain basic principles for which I stand. But you can often influence my thinking on other sorts of issues, or on individual proposals. And it is impossible that I, or my staff, will ever know everything we need to about everything the government does. Getting input from folks back home is absolutely critical.

Yes, we have problems with our government (and I can and should write a series of columns about the detrimental influence of gerrymandering). And yes, skepticism of government is healthy, and indeed, it is very much part of our American tradition. But so is having some faith, at the most basic level, that if we work at it, the system can and does work. 

We just need to make sure we all do everything we can to ensure it does exactly that.


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