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Payback time in Washington -- for a few

This is what’s going on in Washington.

President George W. Bush has three dominant constituents. They are, first, the richest people in the country -- corporate and otherwise. Second, the energy industry. And last but never least, the military-industrial complex.

They elected him and they have expectations. Bush has already sliced off huge amounts of the national largesse to the first two of the three -- the rich and the energy crowd. Now the military-industrial complex is awaiting its payback in the form of Pentagon increases and Star Wars.

The rich folks got a magnificent tax cut -- not least the repeal of the estate tax, which affected only the top 1 percent of Americans -- and the energy industry is being given access to whatever lies under the remaining pristine federal lands.

Bush’s advisers have likely known he was in a race against time to get his promises fulfilled before the budget surplus disappeared in the wake of the ill-conceived tax rebate. But the Pentagon and Star Wars paybacks have been caught in the squeeze as the surplus disappears. The only move that can restore those paybacks is cutting domestic spending programs. Which brings us to what’s going on in the nation.

There are two elements to national needs. Three and four years ago the first element, the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure, commanded considerable attention -- very little of it in Washington’s political corridors.

The highway system, the air traffic control system, urban houses and schools, big-city sewer and water services and local/regional mass transit systems are in varying stages of decay.

The other element is the programs that address human needs -- again housing, but also daycare (only 20 percent of those eligible have access to it), education, Social Security and Medicare, federal assistance for prescription drugs for older people. Nothing fancy here, no fringe spending. Just mainstream societal needs. The working poor are particularly overworked and underserved.

But when an imagined half-trillion dollar budget surplus dwindles in a week of newspaper headlines to a billion dollars -- if that billion actually exists -- that billion becomes, as Sharon Daly of Catholic Charities USA has remarked, “a very small amount for a very large country” that’s just had a two-decade economic boom.

According to polls, most Americans didn’t want a tax cut. They did want the American infrastructure strengthened, including the social infrastructure of Social Security, Medicare, education, housing and daycare programs.

But the government in Washington is not the government of most Americans. It is the government of privileged access and payback.

The tax rebate, although it put money back into the pockets of many Americans who are not rich, accommodates an atomized, fractured society in the worst way. It is the expression of a culture that has bought into extreme individualism, one from which any notion of common good has been scrubbed.

What’s going on in Washington is the machinations of a government of privileged access and payback, one that is unable to articulate a coherent vision for a common enterprise.

When the rich, the energy industry and the military-industrial complex are rewarded, most Americans know who has to pay it back.

All the other Americans, particularly those who can least afford it.

National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001