BY JULIA SIENKIEWICZ ’20
In the political landscape, it’s now common to rail against Washington elite; having spent little to no time in the nation’s capital and assuming the label of “outsider” is considered a mark of relative political purity. Disdaining Washington D.C. is, ironically, an essential tactic to be elected into a shiny new office downtown. As a Bethesda, Maryland native with my house five minutes from the district line, I always found it fascinating how people’s conceptions of the city vary so widely.
What I think made D.C. incredible, until recently, is the energy, the sense that the people who work there are doing important and necessary work for the common good of the country and its citizens. This is not a love letter to the city, rather to those who work there, and I’m by no means referring to Congress or the White House. Out of all the assumptions and conceptualizations of D.C., the one that never fails to bother me is the reduction of “Washington” to these two bodies.
While a U.S. civics class teaches students about the three branches, most fail to properly explain what keeps the country from falling apart: the boring perpetual motion machine that is bureaucracy.
People don’t know the full workings of Washington’s boring bureaucracy, so they are easily scared by it. For most people at all points on the political spectrum, it’s easier to believe that there’s a conspiracy to undermine the country and condemn the big federal government, rather than examine our own ignorance.
The idea of a “shadow government,” a government controlled by private, behind-the-scenes individuals instead of elected officials, is real in many ways, because we as a populace are ignorant to the day-to-day operations of our government. We pay attention to a major bill that affects our own area of the world, to what the news covers, to viral moments happening on the floor of the Senate, but don’t monitor actions of the Department of the Interior or the EPA. The need for an educated, vigilant citizenry has never been more clear, and yet the general public has only come a fraction of the way towards understanding what makes the government function, even when Congress doesn’t.
In 2013, I saw my dad, a federal employee of over two decades, go stir crazy when he wasn’t allowed to go to his job at the Census Bureau, and was forbidden from tele-working. What was especially upsetting to me was that during this time many of his colleagues had to go into work without pay, continuing to do their jobs in a state of Congressionally-created limbo. Those civil servants who still showed up to work are the reason why most people don’t feel the effects of a government shutdown. I was immensely grateful that the shutdown this time was brief, though the fact that it happened at all is infuriating.
We shouldn’t so maliciously condemn “big government” when it is those boring civil servants who are employed by the whole alphabet of agencies, bureaus and departments that keep this country, and the services that all residents and citizens enjoy, operational.