Ranchers in western South Dakota are busy with the grim work of gathering the carcasses of more than 75,000 cattle killed in a freak wind and snowstorm last week. They could use some help, but none is coming from a shut down federal government.
The storm was devastating. First came heavy rains, then hurricane force winds, then snow that piled up as high as 5 feet in some places – all within a matter of hours. Some ranchers lost half their herds. Some were totally wiped out. Some will never recover. Many others should be able to shoulder the monumental work of rebuilding, but, to do that, they will need the aid of federal programs set up to assist ranchers and farmers who get hit hard by the destructive whims of nature.
Right now, USDA farm services offices are closed, so ranchers cannot begin the process of applying for relief from losses that, for the region as a whole, could climb as high as $1 billion. Even when the government is back in business, assistance will not come until Congress passes the farm bill that has been stuck in the House of Representatives.
The good news is that, once the shutdown ends and a farm bill is finally sent to the president, aid will come to the ranchers retroactively. For now, though, this infuriating situation provides a lesson that is being learned all around the country by people who rely on the federal government to function properly: Government is not the enemy.
Sure, political entertainers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have built very lucrative careers by bashing government day in and day out. But, in their pampered lives, they have never had to see crops wither in a drought or farmland swamped by a flood or a herd of cattle perish in a snowstorm. When those things happen, it is not a bad thing to have government ready and able to lend a hand.
Many of us complain about big government as an abstract idea, but the actual components of government are pretty darn popular: the national parks, meat inspectors, agricultural assistance programs, the border patrol, veterans benefits, disaster aid, the FBI, the military and a long list of other programs, including Social Security and Medicare. Obviously, there are always debates about which programs are worthy and how much should be spent on them, but the idea that government itself is an evil is just plain crazy – maybe even a little un-American.
Unfortunately, that craziness has seized control of Congress. The tea party Republicans are so obsessed with the idea that their own government is an alien force that they have been quite gleeful about their success in shutting it down. Even worse is their expressed belief that it would be no big deal to destroy the government's good credit by failing to raise the debt ceiling (one crazy idea that seems to have been shot down thanks to pressure put on Republican leaders by their Wall Street friends). These tea party Republicans are the same folks who have been holding up the farm bill because they insist on slashing agricultural subsidies and the food stamp program even further than they have already been cut.
Ronald Reagan got a lot of laughs when he said, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.' " But, in practice, both as president and as governor of California, he made sure government kept working and he strongly condemned those who, in his time, threatened to play games with the debt ceiling. Compared to the tea party radicals in Congress, Reagan was a big government liberal.
I count several ranchers among my friends. A couple of times a year I show up to help them work their cattle. In May, I am there for branding, along with their families and friends and neighbors. I admire their capacity for hard work and their independent spirit. And, just as much, I admire the way they come together as a community to help each other when more hands are needed.
Government, at its best, is just an extension of that community. Starting with the Homestead Act in Abraham Lincoln's time and extending through Theodore Roosevelt's conservation programs and Franklin Roosevelt's Depression-era relief acts, the federal government has been a partner in building and sustaining the ranching and farming communities of the West.