Many in America feel disconnected with Congress and either know little to nothing about current legislation being proposed or have no knowledge of whether or not their elected congressmen are representing them faithfully or keeping their campaign promises. In September 2009, CBS News polled more than a thousand individuals and found that a staggering two-thirds of the American public were confused over the health care reforms proposed by the Obama administration and Democratic representatives. Between soundbytes on cable news networks and the confusing and lengthy legislative documents that are buried under bureaucratic red tape, can anyone blame the American public for choosing to be ignorant about the important policy debates occurring in this country?
My graduate thesis aims to challenge this disheartening status quo by making it easier for regular citizens, who are not involved in governmental affairs on a daily basis, to digest, discuss and collaborate with others on making the bills, debates and daily proceedings of the US Congress understandable.
On September 12, 2009, purposely chosen for its proximity to the memorial of the World Trade Center attacks, the national Tea Party rallied against a perceived second wave of terror in the United States: 'out of control spending', 'bailouts', and the 'growth of big government' in the Obama administration. (912 website) Among the speeches from frustrated citizens who took pride in their ignorance of the political complexity unfolding around them, a figure emerged at the podium with a persona unlike the rest - Betsy Mccaughey, a longtime conservative commentator and former Lieutenant Governor of New York. In front of Tea Party members she held a black binder above her head containing the massive two-thousand page health care bill, H.R. 3200 (which was later replaced by H.R. 3962), showing protestors how longwinded and complex the federal government had become and positioning herself as the only person in the crowd who had read its contents.
'This bill,' she exclaimed, 'is a medical assault on seniors,' explaining her rationale with an invention uniquely hers: a government mandate that forces senior citizens to attend end-of-life counseling every five years, or what Sarah Palin and other right-wing polticians popularized as 'Death Panels'. (dcpages.com) Months prior to her appearance at the rally many political commentators had roundly disproved her analysis, arguably the most famous being The Daily Show's Jon Stewart who called her message 'hyperbolic' and 'dangerous' to the state of the health care debate. Yet despite negative media attention and a general acknowledgement that her ideas lacked any association with the facts within the bill, in that day's microcosm of Tea Party agitators the most convincingly knowledgeable among them had purportedly tamed the bill's complexity, distilled its many pages into the most quotable form possible, and led citizens toward a false conclusion that months later was still being debunked by a reasonable few.
Mccaughey is a symptom of the increasingly complicated legislative process, currently the battleground between an administration tasked with reforming the nation's public programs and infrastructure, and its many conservative detractors. For such contentious and complex issues as health care, job creation and civil rights, there are few remedies that can solve the inaccessibility that often characterizes these important bills being debated by Congress: there are poorly advertised or curated channels for reading them; they contain far more pages than the average novel; and the confusing language in which they are written can only be deciphered by a knowledgeable few. These factors contribute to a growing public apathy towards Congress that is currently establishing dangerous gold-mine opportunities for political commentators to deceive citizens who have no means to digest legislative text independently.
As someone who recently became interested in politics, the insurmountable complexity of the government was one of the primary reasons I had avoided it. Once I immersed myself in the convoluted processes that constitute governance in Washington, watching political pundits on major news networks and building a sufficient knowledge to tackle what was once impossibly difficult, the political understanding I gained helped me become a better citizen. Whereas before I had gawked at reading the texts of bills in Congress or even voting and making my political voice heard, these same activities became a central and important part of my role as a small part of the American democracy.
The value of this greater participation, however, is largely dependent on the how politically knowledgeable the citizen is. The main goal of this project, and the motivation behind my choice to pursue this problem, is help the American public turn the insurmountable challenges of understanding important legislation and its reliance on political commentators into smaller hills more easily crossed.