Saturday, October 5, 2013

Your government (not) at work

 47th Street, Chicago, Oct. 4, 2013 

     In the furious exchange of partisan blame going on in Washington at the moment, no claim is too outrageous or unfair to be fired off by the Republican side, increasingly frantic at how the public is somehow blaming them for their shutdown of the government.  Arkansas Republican Rep. Tim Griffin, during the police chase of a disturbed woman who drove her car at blockades, tweeted, "Stop the violent rhetoric President Obama, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi. #Disgusting."

     The Democrat side, as always, is more reality based and temperate. For instance, one thing I don't blame the Republicans for is their sentimental focus on the closing of the national monuments in Washington. Even though it's their fault, entirely, there is something so sad about the idea of people visiting our nation's capital, as a pilgrimage to honor this great country, and being thwarted. The country is so screwed up that it can't keep the Washington Monument open. Or trying to visit the national parks, places of extreme natural beauty created by nature and put off limits by our tottering politicians.

     I've felt that frustration first hand.

     Ten years ago, I took my family to Washington, as it happened, a few days after the war in Iraq broke out. I went because my oldest boy was in 2nd grade, and when I was in 2nd grade, my family had taken a memorable tour of the FBI. But the FBI Building was closed, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing was closed, as were other national monuments.  It seemed cowardly, as if the feds felt they had to sandbag the National Archives in case Saddam Hussein's elite guard showed up to burn the Constitution. 

     The idea that this was happening because of a new war almost got lost. Small problems somehow have a way of burrowing into your mind more directly than the big picture disaster. Yes, cancer research is on hold because of the current shut-down, and poor children might not get food aid, and a hundred other problems, growing each day with no end in sight. But long-planned weddings being prevented from taking place at Yosemite! Isn't that heartbreaking? 

     When this crisis was still only looming, at the end of August, I was being bothered by the approaching helium cliff. I wrote this column, about how the United States government for decades squelched the market for helium by selling it too cheaply, and now threatened to send shock waves through a variety of industries that use helium, from semi-conductors to medical imaging to aerospace, due to a short-sighted 1996 law forcing the government to pull out of the helium business whether other suppliers had stepped up or not. The noble gas issue seemed a small but significant metaphor for how badly the government can screw up even something simple. Yes, the shutdown was certainly on the radar, but we hoped it might not happen, and I preferred to worry about something that literally could not be seen. 

     Now, in one of those minor but delicious ironies, Congress, in the middle of all this shut-down business, actually took the time to slap a bandage on the helium problem. The government was allowed to close down, but we're okay, helium-wise. The necessary stopgap fix was passed by Congress. All the president has to do now is find a moment to sign it. So the one thing that I worried about specifically and at length is going to be just fine. It's the rest of the government that has come crashing down. It's like one of those cartoons where the character saves a lone china cup while the whole house collapses around him. 

     Still, the law didn't come soon enough to prevent widespread helium shortages, and this sign, spied on the door into the Hallmark card shop in Northbrook last week made me sad too. "I'm sorry Chrissie, no birthday balloons for you, because the United States government somehow found a way to create a shortage of the second most abundant element in the universe." 

     In 1969, the United States landed men on the Moon. Now we can't even fill party balloons in Northbrook. We seem to be sliding backward at an alarming rate. 

 47th Street, Chicago, Oct. 4, 2013 

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