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Welcome to Washington's Food Fight, Mr. Smith

foodfightJust as Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith did upon his cinematic arrival in Washington, this year’s Capitol newbies will encounter the three major political “food” groups – The Know-It Alls, The Pessimists and The Relativists.  If they are lucky, or smart, or just plain good, they may find themselves associating with a lesser known but more effective commodity – the more principled drivers of change, The Reformers.

Unlike the Reformers, the Know-It-Alls are the Washington establishment, which on the whole believe that everything being done now in the federal government is as it should be, is being done for a reason and must simply be sustained and grown – not changed one bit. It’s good, it’s comfortable and it all seems to work for them. Don’t worry about effectiveness or review. That’s for the pessimists.

The Pessimists don’t really believe things are working well, but they require hard, fast proof before they accept anything new.  They complain that things aren’t funded enough and that the government needs more regulation, not less (indeed, they are pessimists and believe the people cannot really govern themselves).  They believe that our rights have been taken away by various agencies and public bodies. The Pessimists cast a dark cloud over anything that may suggest more choice and freedom – particularly in education.  How can you trust them, afterall?

The Relativists are on everybody’s side.  There is no deal too compromising for them.  You have your opinion, I have mine. They are all equal. There’s really no right or wrong (except in the opposite political party).  If you really believe in a cause, the relativists are at the ready with their idea of reality – that you simply can’t win at all so don’t even try. Relativists tell reformers to relax, to not sweat the small stuff.  “Just take the best deal and move on.”

The Reformers cringe away from  – but must attempt to work through – each of these 3 major Washington food groups.  The Reformers will challenge the Know-it-Alls as to why they are so confident that they can’t do it differently. What about a completely different education program, for example, rather than the 30-year-old one we’ve had that’s doing nothing? (think NCLB, in part)

Even more at odds are the Reformers and the Pessimists. Reformers believe that people, not government, can drive change, from the community to the school.  They push power down, not out.

And of course, the Reformers clash often with the Relativists, though inevitably this third food group is often necessary (though not sufficient) to win the day.

Ideally, the Reformers would be the major bill of fare in Washington, relegating the other food groups to where they belong – off the menu and a la carte.  There is hope – hundreds of new Members of Congress are coming to town with new staffs and ideas, and their ability to make history will depend on whether they can think and act like The Reformers enough to be permanently disposed.

The key is to ask enough questions, learn why it is that the government funds and conducts the programs it does, and be willing when the answer isn’t good enough to suggest things be changed.

Sort of like Mr. Smith.

Or you can just sit back and accept it all, complain about it all and enter into a state of constant deal making. That’s the easier thing to do, frankly, which is why these three groups are so large and unwieldy.

The good news is that people do vote, and if these newbies can’t join the right club, the voters can – if they pay attention – bring them home.