Rep. Jeff Fortenberry
Outside the United States Capitol, a ring of heavily armed police officers guards the institution. Not too many years back, you could simply walk into the Capitol. But times have changed. As I left the House of Representatives this week, a group of officers was casually bickering about something. I lightheartedly entered into their conversation and asked, “What’s the matter?” One of the officers looked at me and said: “I don’t care if you are a Republican or a Democrat, I need my paycheck.”
He’s right. We have to get the government back to work. Millions of Americans are now affected directly or indirectly. The paralysis has severely damaged the institution, frustrated the country, and further weakened economic stability.
Here is the first problem: the government owes $17 trillion in debt. It’s a staggering figure. If we were to pay it off, every man, woman and child in America would owe $53,000. To make matters worse, with the current policies in place and no future change, the effective debt owed in present terms would be around $300,000 per person – primarily due to rising health care costs. This is a real threat to economic and national security.
The second problem is that we have a divided government, representing a philosophically divided country. Republicans control the House of Representatives. Democrats control the Senate and the White House. The larger ideals of what binds our nation together have diminished, leaving little room for negotiated solutions. The current health care policy is a symptom of the dysfunction. It was passed on a purely partisan vote, and its implementation further divides the country, helping some while hurting others.
The third problem is one of process. Each year, the President is responsible for submitting a budget to Congress. The House and Senate work separately and try to find an agreeable overall figure. This process is not functioning. There is no agreement on how to stop the overspending with necessary reforms, and with no funding bill, the government shuts down. Then there is the issue of the debt ceiling, a law setting the cap on what the President can borrow to pay our nation’s bills. All of these factors have converged to create the current crisis.
Leveraging this moment of seriousness, the House of Representatives tried earnestly to negotiate with the President on the underlying problems of the health care bill and the drivers of the debt and deficit. The President refused. I did not favor shutting down the government, but the country also deserved a better response from the President as our leader. Nothing about the last few weeks has been optimal.
So now it’s time to govern responsibly, reopen the doors, and keep pushing for constructive solutions. It’s been said that we are one major budget deal away from restoring America’s strength. Let’s keep that vision alive with a commitment to vibrant debate – and mutual respect – for the good of the country we hold dear.
Jean from Fremont called me this morning. Amidst the great tension in Washington, she called to offer an uplifting and positive perspective. She recognized what has been done to address the problem and now what needs to be done. And I needed to hear that. Public service should invoke the highest of commitments, not the lowest common denominator. We owe so much to those who have gone before, sacrificed for our ideals, and given us this great gift of America.
I wish to thank the many Nebraskans who have contacted my office during the shutdown with a diverse range of heartfelt opinions.
Jeff Fortenberry represents the second congressional district -- most of eastern Nebraska -- in the U.S. House of Representatives.