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What Would Harry Truman Say Now?

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When I was growing up in Independence, Missouri, former President Harry Truman was a local icon -- a plainspoken man with uncommon good sense who led our country through challenging and historic times. Harry Truman is the reason I registered as a Democrat when I turned 18. I've been one ever since, and he remains one of my political heroes today.

In 1948, Truman surprised the pundits and won re-election by taking his case directly to the people in a cross-country whistle stop campaign that highlighted the inability of the 80th Congress -- which he famously dubbed the "Do Nothing Congress" -- to overcome their differences and get things done for the greater good of the country.

The Do Nothing Congress of 2011-12

I can't help but think of Harry Truman now and wonder, what would he say about the 112th Congress?

At a time when our nation faces challenges more severe than we have seen since before Truman's Presidency, the majority in the House of Representatives appears intent on doing nothing of substance.

The prior session of Congress made major strides on economic recovery, saving the American auto industry, investment in energy research and infrastructure, financial sector regulatory reform, health care, equal pay for women, hate crimes legislation, Don't Ask Don't Tell, and many other critically important issues. But this Congress, with the House controlled by Tea Party extremists, has approved only a quarter of the number of bills approved by its predecessor…and a large proportion of those have been on trivial actions, like naming post offices.

Instead of tackling the real challenges before us, these extremists have spent the people's time pursuing an ideological agenda: making it harder for women to access contraception. Trying to dismantle Social Security and Medicare. De-funding virtually any type of environmental protection, while trying to greatly expand oil drilling. And, while dismissing concerns about doubling interest rates on student loans, pushing for even more tax cuts for the very rich.

Gridlock is no longer an adequate description for this Congress. It's become the place where the nation's business goes to die.

The Tea Party faction has taken the GOP so far to the extreme right that they simply no longer want government to do anything. There has always been a significant "limited government" school of thought in this country, but what we are seeing today is different. The House majority is dominated by people who simply don't approve of government, period.

At a time when Americans pay less in taxes than at any time since Truman's Presidency, they want to cut taxes further, especially for the rich. At a time when our infrastructure, education and other public needs are great, they want to block government from making essential investments in our future. At a time when our economy and the lives of millions of Americans are still reeling from the consequences of inadequate regulation of banks and financial institutions, they want to double down on deregulation in virtually every sector of our economy. And yet their hands-off approach to governance stops when it reaches our private lives. They have no qualms about dictating women's medical choices and or declaring gay and lesbian relationships illegitimate.

But what really distinguishes the current Tea Party Congress from previous expressions of conservatism is its militancy. The House majority has taken virtually all major legislation hostage and forced amendments to reflect their anti-tax, anti-regulation, anti-government, anti-reproductive-choice demands.

This approach ensures that most legislation to pass the House is doomed in the more moderate Senate, and vice versa. It's a formula guaranteed to lead nowhere. Perhaps if you just hate government, that is an acceptable outcome. But if, like most Americans, you care about our economy, our quality of life, and our long-term competitiveness, you know this is a disaster. If Harry Truman were President today, he would wish nostalgically for the "Do Nothing Congress" of 1948.

Turning it Around

There's no denying that our country faces big problems, including high long-term unemployment, a stagnant jobs market, healthcare costs that have risen faster than wages (resulting in a net decrease in prosperity and contributing to our shrinking middle class), the mortgage foreclosure crisis, the off-shoring of manufacturing and other jobs, and neglected infrastructure needs--and that's just for starters.

The question is, what will it take for Congress to get serious about tackling these problems instead of just pounding anti-government ideology? There are only two ways this can happen.

First, the Tea Party leadership in the House of Representatives has to realize that government is a necessary part of the solution to our country's problems, and that their job is to solve problems -- not just fight about them. Are they capable of taking this bigger view? Probably not. Unfortunately, the current "Do Nothing Congress" led by the kind of extremists who would rather go out in a blaze of ideological glory than compromise to get something done.

The other way change can happen is when the voters have their say this November. My sense is they have seen enough to know that ideological purity, rhetoric, and gridlock are no substitutes for governing.

This election can turn Congress around. It happened in 1948: not only did Harry Truman pull out a surprise victory over his Republican opponent, but voters swept Democratic majorities into both houses of Congress. It can and must happen again this year. By winning just 25 seats, Democrats can reclaim the majority in the House. Then it will be incumbent on us to replace the last two years of bickering, ideology, and inaction with real results for the American people. It will require congressional representatives who are willing and able to craft sensible solutions while working with people who don't always agree.

I want to be part of that transformation. I hope to help restore a principle that seems to have been lost in the past two years: that you can have strong political values while also being reasonable, responsible, and working to get things done. With so many unmet needs in our country today, the stakes are too high for anything less.


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