Op-Eds

Washington needs to listen to real America

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Washington, DC, March 22, 2011 | comments
We have all learned the background on the appalling situation that has played out along the Mexican border with regard to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and Mexican drug cartel operatives making large-scale purchases of weapons in the United States.  
This was a case of based bureaucrats making decisions that field agents, local law enforcement, and even gun shop owners worried might come back to haunt us. It did just that when one of those weapons allegedly killed an American agent. 
Unfortunately, this instance where Washington bureaucrats dictated policies that didn’t make sense at the local level is not unique. In fact, it exemplifies everything that is wrong with our approach to government and problem-solving.  
I was sworn-in to the House of Representative to complete an unfinished term in November. I am just five months removed from operating a group of small businesses and 15 months removed from serving as Mayor of Corning, New York. These experiences taught me that the closer someone is to a problem, the better they know what is needed to solve it.  
I have also learned one thing from being in Washington: if the federal government were a business, it would be out of business. The inertia (some might call it “negative momentum”) of our national bureaucracy is breath-taking. Don’t get me wrong. Our government public service workforce is filled with public servants who are dedicated and well-meaning. I do not write today to disparage the ATF or individuals in our federal workforce. 
The problem is that Washington isn’t real America. In real America, market and practical pressures dictate business decisions. In real America, families carefully examine their available resources and prioritize how they will spend those resources to meet their family needs. 
The solutions that will meet the challenges of America’s schools will not come out of an office in the Department of Education. Solutions to rising gas prices will not come from a board room in the Department of Energy. Solutions on how to best combat Mexican drug cartel operations along our borders will not come from a suite at the Department of Justice. 
We have to listen to the people on the front lines – whether law enforcement, education, transportation, health care, energy, fill in the blank – because our solutions will come from those confronting the daily challenges in real America. They possess real-life common sense solutions to these issues. 
At the same time, we need aggressive oversight of all federal agencies to find ways to eliminate redundancy, mission-hampering red tape, and decision-making from afar. We need to implement performance-based management, accountability and accessibility to those at all levels of the chain of command. 
In this case we need to examine the ATF. What redundancies exist between the ATF with the FBI, DEA, IRS and other federal agencies? Why are decisions being made inside the beltway that people on the ground know are fraught with peril? 
The lesson of this tragic situation is that we need more local control in terms of strategy and tactics. How many times are decisions made in Washington that waste money, promote inefficiency, and put missions at risk because the bureaucracy here is too large, moves too slowly or is too focused on self-preservation? 
Our nation was founded and built on the idea of a limited national government. There is nothing limited about the federal machine: it reaches further and further into the lives and businesses of its citizenry. What’s worse, it reaches into local efforts and too often ties their hands where those hands need to be set free.  
We need to re-examine the very role of government. It needs to be smaller, more cost-efficient, and less invasive. It needs to respect local control and encourage local solutions.  
It is time we made a serious effort to reverse the direction of our communication in this country. Washington must heed these lessons and start listening to real America. 
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