Did Sept. 11 Change Washington?

The Monterey County Herald, January 20, 2002
By Leon E. Panetta

September 11th is often compared to Pearl Harbor in its impact on the spirit and psyche of a nation.

There is no question but that this brutal attack on America mobilized an immediate and forceful response. But did it really change us, our lives or our politics?

Outraged by the deliberate killing of innocent civilians, the nation unified behind President Bush’s war on terrorism. Overwhelmingly we supported the military effort in Afghanistan, the police and firefighters here at home, and the families that suffered the loss of loved ones. We were not ashamed to show our patriotism, our love of family and community and our flag.

But change is about more than just a response to a crisis. Real change goes to our beliefs, our way of life, our priorities about what’s important.

For most Americans, September 11th was a fundamental transformation—we are less secure in our homes, our jobs, our travel, and our future. Clearly, we have the confidence that we can win this war on terrorism but we also know it will take a level of sacrifice, courage and commitment that we have not witnessed in more than a generation.

But if September 11th so dramatically changed our lives, then why has it not dramatically changed our politics or, more accurately, changed the politics of Washington?

Initially, the president and the leaders of the Congress reacted to the attack with unprecedented unity and bipartisanship. After 20 years of partisan trench warfare, both parties joined together to pass resolutions supporting military action in Afghanistan, $40 billion in immediate funds to fight the war and assist the victims of September 11th, $15 billion to the depressed airlines industry, additional measures for airline safety and security, and new law enforcement tools to fight terrorists.

It was reassuring to see the nation’s leadership reflecting the same unity and fundamental change of attitude and beliefs as the rest of the nation in confronting the challenges of this threat to our democracy.

But while they remain unified on the war front, the political unity has largely collapsed on the home front. Despite agreement on education reform, the parties failed to agree on the economic stimulus plan, fought to a standstill over funds for homeland security, failed to pass relief for the insurance industry and failed to pass major trade, farm and energy legislation. Key appropriations bills were not resolved until the last hour of the last day of the session. And little was accomplished on other priorities like campaign reform, a patients bill of rights, prescription drugs, an increase in the minimum wage of Social Security or Medicare reform.

In recent days, political scandal again has raised its ugly head in the Enron crisis and the president and the Democratic leadership have been exchanging political blows over who is to blame for the deficit, taxes and the recession.

Clearly, listening to the growing volume of political attacks, it was as if September 11th had not changed anything when it came to the politics of Washington.

In a democracy, the leadership of a nation must reflect the will of the people. Why is it then that the unity and common purpose of the people is not more strongly reflected in their elected leaders?

Part of the reason lies in the fierce competition for political power in the House and Senate, particularly in an election year, and part of the reason lies in the legitimate ideological differences of the parties.

But if the nation, if all of us, have been challenged by the events of September 11th to respond to this crisis, to set aside our differences, to carry on with out lives, to commit ourselves and our families to this effort for the sake of the nation, then surely Washington should do no less.

The test as to whether the politics of the nation in any way correspond to the will and concern of the people will be determined by what happens or fails to happen on the following issues over the next few months:

  1. Economic Stimulus. With an economy in recession and nearly 2 million Americans having lost their jobs last year, immediate help for businesses and workers is needed. Democrats want unemployment and health care benefits for laid-off workers and temporary tax incentives for investment and Republicans want more permanent tax relief. Surely, a compromise that combines immediate benefits for the unemployed and tax incentives for businesses should be possible. This can not be said about political ideology. It must be about urgent relief for our ailing economy.
  2. Homeland Security. Despite the threat of terrorism to our daily lives, our public health system is dangerously under-prepared for the possibility of future bioterrorism attacks. Of 100 cargo containers entering U.S. ports today, two are inspected. Eighty percent of our cities and counties have no bioterror response plan. Little has been done about cyber security, rail security or security at America’s nuclear and chemical plants. It is essential, in light of September 11th, that people have confidence that every possible step is being taken to ensure their safety. This can not be about protecting political power. This is about protecting lives.
  3. Long-term Fiscal Integrity. This time last year, the federal budget was balanced and there was a projected federal surplus of more than $5.6 trillion over the next 10 years. Today, the budget is out of balance and both the Administration and Congress are projecting deficits for the next 4 to 5 years. Both parties are fighting over who bears the blame for this dramatic turnaround in our budget. The reality is that the cost of the war, the size of the tax cut adopted last year and a slowing economy are all to blame.But this issue is about the future, not the past. If both parties surrender any semblance of fiscal responsibility, this nation will pay a price in lost resources, increased debt, and higher long-term interest rates. A fiscal policy of “borrow and spend” is a damaging to the economy as “tax and spend.” For a nation battling a war at home and abroad and a recession, the nation’s leadership owes it to the people to present an honest budget, with no smoke and mirrors, that requires fiscal discipline, pays for additional tax cuts or spending initiatives, and restores the long-term fiscal integrity of the budget. While the political risks of cutting the budget are great, the economic risks to our future are even greater.

These issues along with the urgent need now for bipartisan cooperation on the Enron investigation as well as other important legislative priorities will tell us a great deal about whether politics in Washington really has changed.

On September 11th, the terrorists who attacked this nation believed that the American way of life is vulnerable and ultimately, under attack, would surrender to chaos. They have badly underestimated the will and courage of the American people to unify, to change and to confront this challenge. The real question is whether our political leadership has the will and courage to do the same?

LEON PANETTA, is a former congressman and White House Chief of Staff whose column appears regularly in Commentary. Readers may write to him at the Panetta Institute, 100 Campus Center, Building 86E, CSU Monterey Bay, Seaside, CA 93955.

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