What Governing Means in an Increasingly Complex Age

I subscribe to The Hill’s “Overnight” updates on more than a half-dozen areas of legislative concern. Last night’s updates were revealing in many respects.

I’ll focus, in particular, on four of the updates. The “Energy” update described how a Senate committee is looking at the implications of the chemical spill that has affected the water supply for about a third of West Virginia. The “Money” update reported that another Senate Committee is looking at the escalating issues with the security of personal data. The “Technology” update focused on the reaction in the Senate to the recent court decision that undermines “Net neutrality,” the longstanding concept that equivalent Internet access should be available to all users; some groups are lobbying for legislation that would allow providers to slow or even block access to certain high-volume or high-load sites (such as Netflix) unless the sites pay to maintain premium accessibility. And the “Defense” update summarizes the continuing effort in the Senate to reduce or to reverse the $6 billion in cuts to military pensions that were part of the most recent budget deal.

Here is what I think is noteworthy about what is reported in these updates.

First, all of the issues should be of considerable bipartisan concern, and yet almost all of the current legislative activity related to them is occurring in the Senate and not in the House. The ideological stances of the Far Right against regulations related to environmental protection, against regulation related to consumer protection, and against public pensions, as well as their stance in favor of the privatization of infrastructure, makes all of these issues non-starters in the House. Never mind that each of these issues might be addressed in ways that would not compromise in any definitive way any but the most extreme ideological principles. Extremism leaves very little room for nuance. Even on the issues of the cuts to military pensions, the fairly widespread rhetoric in support of active and retired military personnel has produced very few public commitments to support any specific legislative proposals to protect their pensions.

Second, in response to the increasingly vocal complaints that the House is dysfunctional and ineffectual, the Far Right has argued that in this era of government over-reach, doing nothing—stopping legislation—is itself an achievement. But this rhetorical turn ignores the fact that inaction at this level is tantamount to action. For instance, it allows the oversight of industries to continue to diminish, with grave consequences to the basic quality of life for everyone living in any proximity to those industries. The Far Right complaints about the regulatory burdens imposed on industries were exposed as a mendacious and empty talking point when it was revealed that the chemical plant at the center of the disastrous spill in West Virginia had not been inspected since 1993.

Lastly, that all of these issues, which have significant long-term as well as immediate consequences, should be at the forefront at the same time illustrates very pointedly what a complex enterprise our government has become. One of the staples of cable television is shows that focus on disasters that might profoundly disrupt, reshape, or even end human life. Such catastrophes include meteor strikes, earthquakes, tidal waves, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes and super-tornados, prolonged droughts, pandemics, and rapid climate change. The common thread in the discussion of all of these possibilities is the increasing dependence of human societies on technologies that are as fragile as they are pervasive. A government that is not appreciative of that fragility cannot respond effectively to threats to it. Rigid ideology is not just a threat to our political system. It is a threat to our entire way of life. When there is so much at stake, there is no room for yahoos to posture self-indulgently and then to insist that such empty posturing serves the public interest.

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