Governing, not government, is our problem to solve

After voting to reopen the federal government and increase the debt ceiling two weeks ago, Rep. Don Young is ready to take on the $17 trillion national debt. How? It’s not by repealing Obamacare or making any drastic cuts to any other social program. Young seems to believe the most effective way to reign in the government is by making “targeted cuts and reforms to sprawling agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Interior and the Forest Service.” But just as this will be his focus, every representative in Congress has their own idea of how to effectively govern a diverse population spread across the entire continent.

Young took a symbolic stand against Obamacare when he voted with House Republicans to use it as a bargaining chip for keeping the government open. But now that the stalemate is over he’s resorted to his traditional fight against the policies of land management agencies that impede responsible resource development in Alaska. That’s been an ongoing battle for many legislators, especially in the western states. To paraphrase the common conservative mantra, EPA regulations and land use restrictions imposed by the Forest Service and Department of Interior are not the solution to our problems; they are the problem.

But when it comes to government spending, there’s not much savings to be realized by attacking these agencies. Their appropriations amount to less than one percent of the total federal budget. They employ only a fraction of the federal workforce. And, generally speaking, a majority of Americans value their work. In fact, based on a recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, every federal agency except the IRS is viewed favorably by the American people.

Meanwhile, the same poll has approval ratings for Congress nearly at an all-time low. Less than one in five trusts our elected officials when it comes to governing. It seems Americans think the real problem is Congress. Except even when we’re overwhelmingly disapproving of their performance, we still reelect the vast majority of incumbents.

There are several possible explanations for the obvious discrepancies in these polling figures. The one I want to consider is that adage that “government is the problem” is too simple. For starters, the function of our democratic government is incredibly broad. It’s much more than the President, Congress and the Supreme Court. There are 15 Cabinet members in the executive branch that each oversee their own department. Some of those include dozens of separate federal agencies.

For instance, there are 21 agencies under the Department of Agriculture. Most are responsible for farm related programs. Several, like the Forest Service and the Rural Utility Service, seem unrelated to agriculture. And just as Alaskans may have little interest in the department’s big agricultural programs, states like Iowa and Oklahoma aren’t impacted by Forest Service policy and programs. Similarly, those states have no need for the Coast Guard or any other maritime agency which we Alaskans value.

In essence there are hundreds of federal agencies that don’t affect every American. So who is to judge the value of the work they do? Should Iowans have a say in how the Forest Service operates across the country? But to ask that question also means that even though most Alaskans believe environmental protection hampers resource development here, that we may not understand the beneficial value the EPA brings to other states.

Our government has grown commensurate with the competition for limited resources exacerbated by an exploding population with near endless demands for material goods. We expect total freedom to travel and communicate across long distances. We are a complex people living in complicated times. Self-governing can’t be easy.

“Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” Ronald Reagan famously said in his 1981 inauguration speech. But he followed by telling us that “government by an elite group” isn’t “superior to government for, by, and of the people. … All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden” of governing. In other words, if our government is out of control, then we, the people, are equally responsible. And that’s especially true whenever we think we can get the nation back on track by simply reducing the size of government.

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