I wrote the following essay for the United States Capitol Historical Society’s high school writing contest.
“A republic, if you can keep it,” is how Benjamin Franklin responded at the end of the constitutional convention when questioned on the type of government the United States would have. The United States was one of the first nations to be governed by its people in a time where most nations where ruled by kings. The founders wanted a government that was run by the people with limited power. They believed that government existed to protect people’s rights, not rule against them. The addition of the Bill of Rights reaffirms the goal of creating such a government. In the modern era, it is vital for citizens to be informed on current events and politics, and to make their voice heard to politicians in Washington.
For a citizen to become politically informed he or she must be aware of their own views, and their representative’s views, voting record, and honesty. It is difficult for a political novice to form their own opinions; most people are influenced by their parents or the environment they grew up in. Once a citizen is aware of their own positions, it is their responsibility to examine their elected representatives. A legislator’s voting record can reveal his or her views, but a voter needs to be aware of the party line and compromises. A congressman may vote against their opinion if the party’s position requires they do, it is called voting for the party line. This can occur when the politician wants to stay favorable with the party leadership to gain support on another issue. The second instance is during a compromise, each side surrenders part of their agenda. This happened last summer when Congress debated raising the debt limit. However, many legislators compromise away their principles. A self respecting voter cannot support this. The last notable aspect of a legislator is their honesty. Common things that politicians lie about are their proposals and the effects of their actions. In larger bills, like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it is not always clear what each side is proposing. In the 2009 State of the Union address, a legislator interrupted President Obama after he denied that his health care reform plan would apply to illegal aliens. Politicians who attempt to hide something in the bill and lie about it should be removed from office. Politicians also lie about the effect of their actions. Legislators may pass blame to others when an idea goes wrong and take credit for something good, whether or not they were involved. An informed voter must be aware of their own views and their representative’s views, voting record, compromises, and honesty.
Next, a citizen must find a way to learn more; this can be accomplished through television, talk radio, internet, and books. Television can be helpful to those with limited time, but many news shows are biased. The worst offender is The Ed Show on MSNBC. Ed Shultz regularly makes up an opinion, assigns it to Republicans, and then proceeds to criticize it. This happened during the contraception debate in 2012. Shultz was explaining how Republicans wage a war on women, despite no Republican supporting it. There are more honest hosts on talk radio. However, most, like The Eric Erickson Show in Atlanta, are not nationally syndicated. Erickson is a conservative, but has praised President Obama for a correct decision. Stations attempt to expand their listenership by making their shows available online, but this has a limited audience. The internet is a powerful tool. Websites like GovTrack allow users to view each legislator’s voting and sponsorship record. The drawback is that there are different versions of each bill, so it can be difficult to find the correct one. Also, GovTrack only follows the federal Congress, so state legislatures are not included. Lastly, books are great sources for information. However finding a credible author can be a challenge. Also, older books can be outdated quickly. A library is the best place to find the most up to date books. Each way to learn has advantages and disadvantages.
The Founding Fathers expected representatives to use their better judgment on controversial issues or in times of panic, but many people today would rather have the legislators listen to the public’s better judgment. Many politicians are out of touch with the public, but have established themselves so that it is nearly impossible for them to lose to the opposition or primary challenger. The Tea Party was started by common people and endorses popular conservatives. The group won seats in Congress in 2010, and gave incumbents like Harry Reid a challenging race. But Republicans are also facing Tea Party candidates. Senator Orrin Hatch has attempted to become more conservative after Mike Lee, a Tea Party candidate from Hatch’s state, was elected. Senator Hatch is also facing a primary challenger. In Indiana, Dick Lugar lost his primary to the Tea Party candidate Richard Mourdock. It shows that grassroots activism can change Washington. However, there are different ways to make change. In Ohio, a law to restrict public sector union bargaining rights was repealed through referendum, and there is recall election in Wisconsin for Governor Scott Walker. Whether it is through national organization, or through local changes, people all over the nation are forcing politicians to hear their voice.
The amending process makes our constitution a document that will last for ages. Amendments are passed to deal with unforeseen challenges. The issue of term limits is an example. Public service was never foreseen to be a career, so after Franklin Roosevelt was elected to four terms and managed to drastically change the American system, a presidential term limit was passed. The kind of change he brought was exactly what the founders wanted to avoid, they did not believe the government had a role in helping the economy or aiding citizens. Thomas Jefferson wanted the government to be as limited as possible, and it pained him to take any activist role during his presidency. Since no term limit exists for Congress, members like Daniel Inouye have been there for decades. They have passed laws that limit freedoms and have spent us into massive debt. It is difficult for anyone to challenge these long term politicians, so new representatives can be rare. If term limits existed for Congress, common people, who have jobs and a family, would be elected. They would solve problems instead of leaving them for later generations. While in Paris, Jefferson contemplated making all laws, debts, and contracts lapse after nineteen years. Although he abandoned the idea, an automatic sunset provision in every bill combined with term limits is a smart idea. Since new people would revote on every law on the books, they would reflect the will of people.
The greatness of the American government is directly related to the voters. The American system cannot function as it was intended if citizens are not knowledgeable. The founders believed that people should rule themselves, instead of an elite family or foreign conqueror, so they created a republic. The idea is timeless, and in this modern era it is the duty of everyone to keep America as a beacon for freedom in this changing world.
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