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July 1, 2007

Games With No Winners

“Whatever games are played with us, we must play no games with ourselves, but deal in our privacy with the last honesty and truth.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1860

From Emerson’s mouth to Washington’s ear. If only it were so. Emerson was writing in The Conduct of Life about how we, as individuals, should regard and respond to important personal questions. But as we survey today’s political environment, the ideas we learned in school about government—ideas such as honesty, integrity and fearless pursuit of the people’s well-being—seem hopelessly out of touch.

Of course, there has always been a significant gap between how politicians go about their business and what we, the electorate, believe they should do as our representatives. But as we at the Metals Service Center Institute watch the often pointless political posturing and gamesmanship that surround the struggle to retain a healthy domestic manufacturing sector, we can’t help but think the gap is as wide today as it has ever been.

Today’s political environment is dominated by hidden agendas and, of course, the hidden agenda’s first cousin, money. Consider why we say politicians today take a particular “stance” on an issue rather than a “stand.” A stance is nothing more than a posture that is expected to change, while a stand—based on firm, unrelenting principle—is expected to be clear, unequivocal and relentlessly unchanged. Stances are meant to convey impressions, often politically advantageous misimpressions, to voters. To today’s savvy politician, stands are best avoided, because they will be unpopular with some or perhaps many voters, and they commit you to actually do something.

At some point, the politician’s vote—even one that’s for sale to the highest bidder—has to mean something. And this is where the myriad hidden agendas of our politicians undermine the process. How can a bill to address Chinese currency manipulation, such as last session’s Hunter-Ryan Fair Currency Act (bipartisan legislation with 180 co-sponsors, representing 41% of the House, including four committee chairmen), receive no hearing and remain stuck in committee for the entire Congress?

This was all supposed to change in the new Congress. With Democrats in control of the House, there has been a hearing on the Fair Currency Act. Just about everyone who testified loved it. But there still hasn’t been a vote in committee, and there’s no sign that there will be.

Congressional apologists cite many reasons why the bill is stuck. But what it comes down to, we believe, are hidden agendas and money. Some members of Congress who have co-sponsored the bill want to appear to support it when, in fact, they don’t. Some have major supporters who, for their own gain, want Chinese currency manipulation to continue. Others don’t want to rile Wall Street. And there are some who simply want the flow of multinational campaign contributions to continue.

Here’s a fact to keep in mind: Congressional campaigns raised more than $1.14 billion in 2006. What portion of that money came in small contributions, from you, me and others who have a stake in a strong U.S. manufacturing economy?

We all have a choice. We can shrug and accept the political world as it is. Or as passionate defenders of North American manufacturing and the good life it has provided in the U.S. and Canada, we can, with discipline and focus, hold our politicians accountable for their words and especially for their principles and deeds.

It’s time to answer this question: Can a government of, by and for the people, as Lincoln so eloquently described it, re-emerge in today’s “show me the money” environment?