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Public comment: The politics of “winning” leaves little room for the voices of ordinary people

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Thursday, Dec. 21, 2017 5:14 PM

In theory, the United States has a government of, by and for its people. Lately, though, the opinions of most people seem to matter very little.

Despite bipartisan opposition from nearly everybody – technical experts, the public and even Congress – and with the exception of whoever was responsible for the hacking campaign that left hundreds of thousands of anti-neutrality comments on the Federal Communications Commission website, the FCC voted on Thursday to repeal net neutrality rules that prevent internet providers from differentiating in speed, cost and even availability between types of content. The change does not benefit consumers, and the potential for censorship is clear.

Despite opposition by many recreational users, scientists, environmentalists and a coalition of Native American tribes, President Donald Trump has given a big gift to energy companies by decimating the new Bears Ears National Monument. Public comment was ignored. Lawsuits will follow.

Despite polls that showed more Americans supporting the Affordable Care Act than opposing it, the president and Republican Congress have repeatedly attempted to “repeal and replace” it. During the last go-round, Sen. Cory Gardner refused to tell constituents how he intended to vote, and those who tried to contact him found that his voicemail wasn’t accepting messages. Many, many members of Congress avoided town halls where they knew worried constituents would ask hard questions. That’s not right.

House and Senate tax reform bills passed quickly with little time to gather or tally public comment. Both versions benefit campaign contributors more than they help constituents. Neither is a straightforward tax cut for ordinary taxpayers. Public opposition has been fierce and largely futile.

The initial Senate bill passed with all Republicans except the renegade Bob Corker voting for it, and all Democrats voting against it. What can that mean? That it benefits only Republicans and harms only Democrats? That’s unlikely, but it’s equally unlikely is the idea that Democratic senators had no constituents who favored reform and Republican senators had none who expressed concerns. The most probable explanation is that a whole lot of public comment was dismissed.

Perhaps most disturbing is the president’s attitude toward those who do not agree with him. He is not only dismissive but often contemptuous.

Governing has become more about winning than about representation. It’s important to remind elected officials that those who lose – lose insurance coverage, lose ancestral lands to energy development, lose their voice in Washington while they pay more taxes – are constituents as well. As the recent Alabama vote demonstrated, ignoring them has painful consequences, as it should.

Americans cannot be neatly divided into political parties and ignored when their party is not in power. Listening to and learning from public input should be an integral part of governing.

Shame on those who think they know better than the people who have elected them to serve.

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