Wrapped in the silence of winter, with their houses and storefronts anchored like tree trunks to the snow-covered prairie that stretches from the edge of town to the gray edge of the sky, the 9,800 citizens of this rural community seem almost unimaginably distant from the budget crisis in Washington.
At the 19th-century baroque courthouse, where golden light from the chandeliers is reflected off dark wood paneling, lawyers drone through matters of minor crime and civil dispute. Down the street at Tommy O’s Ice Cream and Coffee shop, local business people banter about local issues.
From one end of State Street to the other, and out past the fanciful Victorian homes that line Somonauk Street, the latest developments in the struggle between President Clinton and congressional Republicans are on no one’s lips.
“Day whatever of the government shutdown and, like, who cares?” laughs Dina Snyder, a part-time secretary and mother of two young children, as she mimics the tones of recent installments of the nightly television news.
Beneath the surface, however, people have watched the recent partial shutdown of the federal government with a surprisingly keen eye. And their opinions about the stoppage--and their broader views about what kind of government they want--offer cold comfort to any of the parties involved in the matter.
Deeply conservative in their politics and their personal values, intensely preoccupied with their personal lives and their community, people here have serious quarrels with government--with its red tape, its wastefulness, and its inefficient and sometimes mindless bureaucracy.
But they also want almost all the services now provided by the federal government, and they are dismayed--even embarrassed--by the spectacle of elected officials behaving in ways they themselves never could or would.
In terms of political tactics, the feelings expressed by people here at the end of last week go a long way toward explaining why House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and the hard-line GOP House freshmen failed in their effort to use the government shutdown as leverage against Clinton.
This is uncompromisingly Republican territory. Admirers of the president are hard to find. “Clinton’s a snake in the grass,” Richard Lundquist, a 63-year-old Korean War veteran, said as he waited for a haircut in Bernie’s Barbershop.
“He cannot be trusted,” said Gerry McLain, owner of the Ben Franklin store and several shops along a main street that is remarkable among small towns for having no vacant buildings.
And there is widespread agreement that the federal budget must be dealt with. “Balancing the budget is important,” said Greg Millburg, government affairs director for the De Kalb County Farm Bureau and president of the Sycamore Chamber of Commerce.
Yet as seriously as they take the budget deficit, few in Sycamore seem to be cheering on the Republicans in Congress, especially Gingrich. Instead, most regard everyone involved in the budget debate with almost equal disappointment and disdain.
“It is not seen as taking a stand for principle. They are diminishing what little respect remained for politicians,” said Diane Florschuetz in the carefully chosen words of an officer of the National Bank & Trust Co. of Sycamore.
“The shutdown [was] a kind of farce,” agreed Bernard McMillan, who has been mayor of Sycamore for the past five years. “Democrats blame Republicans, Republicans blame Democrats.”
“It’s theatrical. They’re all bad card players,” McLain said.
To Snyder, whose daughter is 7 years old, it all seems distressingly familiar: “If my daughter acted like that, I’d spank her.”
Beneath these feelings is something deeper.
“Embarrassed is a good word,” said Ellen Rogers, who supervises the Meals on Wheels program for De Kalb County. Last year, her organization, the Voluntary Action Center, which depends heavily on federal grants and matching funds as well as contributions from local governments and private charities, served 200,000 meals to needy older people. The center also provided 140,000 rides in its fleet of 20 buses to elderly residents for visits to the doctor, the grocery store and other destinations.
“It is extremely frustrating that they can’t get their job done,” Rogers said. “This county wouldn’t tolerate it if we were unable to resolve a problem in our organization. It would not be tolerated in most businesses.”
As for the recent suggestion by Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, a GOP presidential hopeful, that no one would miss the federal government, support here for most federal programs is wide and deep.
National parks. Medicare. Medicaid. The air-traffic control and safety systems. The federal role in cleaning up and protecting waterways such as the nearby Kishwaukee River. Food and transportation programs for the elderly. All these and more have defenders here.
Many wish the programs could be more efficient or cost less--or that someone else should pay for them. But abolish or substantially reduce them? Apparently not.
“I don’t trust government,” Florschuetz said. “It’s got to be watched.”
But “people want the services. They just want somebody else to pay for them,” she said.
She sees the necessity of the programs in her own life. As a trust officer, she helps elderly customers in nursing homes apply for federally financed care when their savings run out.
And she is exasperated that Medicare has cut back on dental care for older people, who sometimes reach a point where they cannot pay the costs.
Clean water in the Rock River, which flows near her home in nearby Rochelle, is important too. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, if my husband had caught a fish in the Rock, I wouldn’t have eaten it,” she said. And federal safety standards are a must for the nuclear power plant whose cooling towers she can see from her home.
The importance of federally supported social programs is clearest to individuals who work directly with those they serve.
Dalena Kemn-Kahn is administrator for the Pine Acres nursing home in next-door De Kalb. Many older people from Sycamore whose funds have run out seek care there because the retirement facility in Sycamore does not take people who depend on government support.
“I don’t think less government is needed,” she said. “More efficient, more accountable government is what’s needed.”
In the nursing home business, for instance, “the federal standards are good. Our industry has proven that it needs to be policed,” she said.
But waste, duplication and needless paperwork are sapping a system that can barely meet today’s needs, much less the growth in demand for elder care just over the horizon, she added.
By midafternoon Friday, the sun had faded and the temperature was dropping below 10 degrees. At the Voluntary Action headquarters, a barn-like structure set on low ground at Sycamore’s southern edge, Ellen Rogers and the program’s executive director, Tom Zucker, paused among folding tables and food service equipment to ponder what the budget crisis and shutdown might mean for the people they serve.
“These are very uncertain times. In the past, federal funding has been a pretty steady base for organizations like ours to build on,” Zucker said. “Now we are being told to look to local communities to prioritize. I’m not sure the local communities are of a mind-set, or even [have] the ability, to respond.”
That is not to say Rogers and Zucker see no problems with the programs. They were aghast when three state inspectors and a federal official monitor arrived at their door to examine and add up every receipt for milk served to needy people during one month last year.
Only $5,000 worth of milk was involved, and nothing was found amiss. The inspectors “knew this was ridiculous,” Rogers said, but they said one program in Detroit had claimed reimbursement for milk it hadn’t served, so checkups were ordered for programs everywhere.
And when the Sycamore program submits a voucher for federal reimbursement for its buses each month, the forms must cross four desks in Chicago and three more in the state capital of Springfield before going to Washington. Most are just checking and double-checking the previous checkers.
“And let one of those persons be sick or on vacation and the whole process stops,” Zucker said. Reimbursement can run as much as six months behind.
Still, they say, while “we do need to balance the budget, it should be an absolute priority of the federal government to provide a stable base for necessary social programs.”
In winter-bound Sycamore, conservative as it is, a surprising number of people seem to agree.
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Comparing Budget Plans
These are highlights of the new seven-year budget-balancing plan President Clinton offered Saturday night and how it compares to the Republican proposal Congress approved in November.
All savings are over seven years using Congressional Budget Office estimates and were provided by the White House.
Savings Clinton GOP Total $602 billion $664 billion Medicare $102 billion $168 billion Medicaid $52 billion $117 billion Annually approved general govern- $295 billion $383 billion ment spending, including defense Welfare, including earned income tax $45 billion $82 billion credit for the working poor Closing corporate tax breaks $60 billion $18 billion Student loans 0 $4.5 billion Farm programs 0 $4.6 billion Savings from lower interest payments $57 billion $62 billion as federal deficits go down Tax cuts $87 billion* $240 billion
* grows to $147 billion if economy performs as well as the White House believes it will