Saturday, November 8, 2014

Repurposing Government

Two weeks ago I spoke at the ribbon cutting ceremony for the Highway 34 Bridge joining Nebraska and Iowa. Local and national officials, past and present officeholders, people from both states—all came together after working on this project, which took over 20 years. Encouraged by the spirit of celebration, I joked, “Obviously this will help people from Iowa get to Huskers games faster!”

On a deeper level, the ceremony reminded me that our national government has few success stories today. The bridge is a piece of infrastructure that is critical to economic well-being and to travel between family and friends. People from different political parties and states recognized a common need and resolved to work through problems until the job got done. In a small way, the opening of the bridge represented a bygone era of basic government functionality—but one that might be worth reclaiming in our time.

America needs to repurpose its government

Repurposed objects are often old, outmoded, but not without value. Most Americans want smart and effective government that serves their needs. They expect government that is accountable, responsive and affordable. As James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But men are not angels, and ordinances of reason and the rule of law are needed to serve the good that is common to us all. Government should maintain the guardrails for national, economic, and family security so that community life can flourish.

Nearly everyone agrees that one of Washington’s highest priorities should be to keep America safe. Many agree also that a strong economy with ample jobs and widespread opportunity must be our focus. Our market-based economy is sustained when the government maintains a fair and just playing field for competition. A vibrant marketplace expands space for constructive interdependency and community dynamism, creating opportunity, fighting poverty, and driving innovation. In a market that works for the many, everyone can benefit from using their gifts, enabling them to provide for their families and help others.

We live in a time of intense demand for sound public policies. But it’s important to recognize that Washington can’t solve all the problems. Well-formed individuals and vibrant cultural institutions are the preconditions for healthy political and economic life. The government exists in service to societal well-being. A properly ordered government, which delivers basic public services, ends up building bridges across Nebraska and Iowa through commitment and collaboration.

Unfortunately, Washington is mired in mediocrity. Partisan gridlock, bureaucratic dysfunction, and government overreach are hindering the traditional means through which we insure government’s responsible and proper place: supporting a strong and good society. Horizons of opportunity in our economy are too dim for many, and social fracture is straining more and more families and communities.

Our current discourse would benefit from a better understanding of the various levels of government that provide structure and order. Federalism is a long held principle in the United States. The national government focuses on high level concerns such as military security and economic protection. State and local governments offer other goods that are closer to the people: protection from crime, education, maintenance of streets—even tending parks for recreation. When Washington tries to do too much, it interferes with this effective system of government-societal organization.

Many people in our state are familiar with the phrase, “Nebraska is a great place to live, work, and raise a family.” Hard work and fiscal responsibility, family and community, faith life and civic life — these are the values that give those words real power. The Nebraska model can serve as America’s model for economic, political, and cultural renewal. Our values can repurpose Washington—and turn our country around.


JEFF FORTENBERRY has served as the U.S. Representative for Nebraska's 1st congressional district since 2005. He is the Chairperson for the Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry. Vice Chair of the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights and has a seat on the Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia. He is a member of the following Caucus groups: Civil War Battlefield Caucus - Congressional Biofuels Caucus - Congressional Farmer Cooperative Caucus - House Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Caucus - International Conservation Caucus - Sportsmen's Caucus.

Congressman Fortenberry has become the most knowledgeable representative on Capitol Hill for nuclear security issues.

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