Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fear and Loathing in Washington DC

One of my final academic obligations of this internship is to attend some sort of presentation or speech, and write a paper on it. The University had provided me with several speakers I could have written my paper on, but I procrastinated. Now, with less than three weeks to go, it became apparent that I needed to find something on my own.

Luckily for me, I hit paydirt yesterday, when I discovered that Congressional Quarterly (a news website that I compulsively check while at work) was hosting a forum on American’s Infrastructure Wednesday morning, which is when I *didn’t* have to be at work. It seemed perfect on a number of levels:
-It was held at Union Station, which happens to be right next door to both my office, and our classroom-
The keynote speaker was Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), who has taken over John McCain’s spot as The Democrat’s Favorite Republican, and featured a few other politicos that I had heard of-
It looked like it was going to be about some nitty gritty policy issues that actually interest me.

Sometimes, people ask me why I don’t have a girlfriend. You just read that I was kind of excited to go to a forum on congressional funding for highways and sewer systems. I’m pretty sure that’s a big part of the reason.

So I get up extra early on my day off, throw on my best suit, and head down the Metro towards the Union Station, for breakfast and mingling. I’ve had to do this “mingling” business a few times since I’ve been here in DC, and I have to admit, I don’t like it. I have 30 min of forced awkward conversations with people in industries that have nothing to do with me, in hope that one will take such a liking to me that they’ll give me a job. It is like a sick, professional version of speed dating. I swear, last time we did this, my fellow interns were ogling over Rob Portman’s business card like it was the phone number of the hottest girl in a bar.

Oh well. Free breakfast right? Can’t be all bad.

I sneak into a chair in the back, sandwiched between a puffy faced man from the Department of Transportation, and an AFL-CIO rep whose hair was so slicked back; he could have been Pat Rielly’s stunt double. Outside of a few, poor bottom-of-the-food-chain congressional aides, I was by far the only guy there under 40. This seems to happen to me all the time.

The Senator was the first to speak, after showing up a few min late, surrounded by posse of overachieving legislative assistants. He rambles on for around 40 minutes, speaking in big, broad themes and avoiding specific policy points like most of us avoid sexually transmitted diseases. He paused twice to make a terrible joke, which the audience felt obligated to laugh at, and then was whisked away to do more important senator things. I was disappointed, but I don’t think he’s one of the Senators famous for oratory masterpieces. He’s a war hero.

After Hagel leaves, the 8 person panel discussion begins. Did any of you guys ever play Simcity2000? Remember the transportation advisor? He used to whine and whine, and if you lowered his budget even one tiny percent, he’d flip out and start blowing up your roads. Do you know who I’m talking about? Please say yes.

Ok. Well, imagine a panel of 7 of these guys, speaking to a crowd of about 200. The way the discussion was framed, the government was being awfully stupid to fund things like our military, education, justice department, etc etc, when sewer systems were in disrepair. If we don’t build more roads, dams, bridges, etc, CHINA WILL AND WE WILL LOSE TO COMMUNSITS. I was unaware that the “highway gap” was actually more important than the “Missile Gap”.

There was one poor, lonely dissenter on the panel. He was part of the American Taxpayers Union, which usually has a pretty knee jerk reaction against any form of government spending or taxation. Normally, groups like this to do not garner sympathy from me; but in this case, I had to make an exception. Here are some sample conversations.
Panelist 1 (Society for people who build highways)- I think we should spend 500 Billion next year on new highways and road related projects

Panelist 2 (Society for people who do things with dams)-that’s just as well, but we also need 100 Billion for dam related projects.

Lonely Dissenter- uh, do we even have that much money to spend? We’re in a war and a recession too….

Everybody else- Seriously. Do you want China to win?

Moderator- How can we pay for all these needed improvements?

Panelist 3 – I think we need to hike up the Gas tax by at least 20 cents. At least.

Panelist 4- I don’t think that’s nearly enough. We should increase it by 30 cents, and then add a quarter tax on bottled water!

Lonely Dissenter-Have you guys not watched CNN in the last two weeks? Working class people are getting screwed on gas prices. Do you think we’re going to vote for even higher gas prices?


Passionate Lobbyist for Construction Industry holding a bat-Lets wait for him outside.

Actually, this gas tax stuff got me thinking. The entire tenor of the discussion focused on educating voters on infrastructure issues, which later deteriorated into barely a codeword for “Voters are stupid, how do we get them to support our stuff?”. Panelists often tried to outdo each other with “lolz voters r dumb” stories. This was a room filled with wealthy think tank fellows, lobbyists, elected officials, and consultants. Some of these guys commute 80 miles round trip to work each day…a hike in the gasoline tax wasn’t going to affect them. It would affect folks back home in Newark, like a lot of the policies that these folks in the beltway cook up.

I’m not saying that the gas tax is bad, or that our nation doesn’t need drastic reinvestments. In fact, me and my roommates have ranted a lot about Hillary Clinton and her gas tax pandering (often with some profanity sprinkled in)….but I can’t shake the feeling that a lot of folks involved in the policy making process and discussion could use a little humility. Maybe not everybody understands the ins and outs of the air traffic control system, or how highways are constructed, but that doesn’t give an excuse to lampoon them, or worse, use political tricks to take advantage of them…just like we don’t want our mechanic to take advantage of us.

Ugh. Too much thinking at 8 AM on my day off

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