Former U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell (RI – D) died on January 1, 2009. I heard the late Senator speak in 1995 at a rally on Capitol Hill. The Contract with America was alive and well and the Republicans had control of both houses of congress for the first time since the 1950’s. Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole treated the event like an inauguration and strutted GOP legislative supremacy with great fanfare. Gingrich set his sites on killing big government. Early targets for cuts were PBS, NPR and Federal Financial Aid. The attack on college aid led to one of the early Democratic victories against Gingrich. It also led to me getting to hear Senator Pell.
The Washington DC area colleges and universities quickly organized a protest to the proposed reductions in Federal Student Aid. Gingrich’s ideas included cutting the number of Pell Grants along with trimming other aspects of Federal Financial Aid. I was a first year student at Georgetown University receiving Federal work study and Federal subsidized loans. I along with several friends attended the event. I called my congressional representative Mike Ward (KY – 3rd D) and got him to come speak at the event. We met students from all of the DC area schools and a great sense of purpose united a group of 18-22 year old students.
Our energy propelled the speakers to great performances. Along with Rep. Ward, a 1st term representative, an all star line up spoke including Dick Gephardt and Ted Kennedy. The largest applause however was reserved for Senator Pell. I did not have a Pell Grant but knew many who did. The chant of “We Love Pell!” erupted from the students as he moved to the podium to speak. It was obvious that Pell’s health was not great and he had announced he had Parkinson’s disease just a few months before this event.
Pell gave a moving talk and his physical vulnerability only added to the moment. Here was a man whose legislative record had helped so many people pursue college, pursue a better living and pursue a greater breadth of knowledge. Here was a man whose body was betraying him speaking to a group of hopeful young people worried that their dreams of attaining an education were under assault. It was a moment where a line was drawn and the Gingrich congress was stopped.
Can Good Government Exist?
The lesson of Senator Pell’s life is that government can play a constructive role in promoting the American Dream. Most U.S. citizens are not thrilled with the idea of new government programs due to the widespread history of abuse, corruption and wasteful red tape. Those types of government programs are only exacerbated when pork barrel spending is added to the mix. Most U.S. citizens regardless of party want small government.
The great debate of the next 4 years is whether or not smaller government means no role exists for government. If we look in broad strokes of history the GOP supported policies that ran up deficits under Reagan and Bush to only become quite hawkish on spending under President Clinton. Once W. was elected the feeding frenzy of pork and sweetheart deals returned to the GOP, but Obama is likely to face principled deficit hawks. They may try to eliminate or limit all government spending and regulation.
The fact is unless centrist politicians defend the notion that legislation such as the GI Bill or Pell Grants are smart and good for the country, good government programs are easily thrown out with the bad. Deficit spending will be constrained at some point in the near future. Perhaps when the stimulus package has run its course belt tightening will be the soup du jour in DC. Barack Obama would be wise to invoke Pell when selling his vision of pragmatic smart government to the U.S.
A Pell Grant is government spending that in the long run pays for itself. If a daughter of poorer parents has the aptitude to be a Registered Nurse for instance, but does not have the means to achieve the degree requirements, she is likely to settle into a lower paying field and therefore pay fewer income taxes in the future. That same student with a Pell Grant can make a great living, pay taxes, buy a car, buy a home etc. and be an engine for the economy.
That logic of investing up front and reaping the rewards in the near and long term is the logic of good government. It is the logic that Obama will have to use to pursue his legislative agenda. Without that sort of explanation new government action will look a lot like the government action that a majority of Americans dislike. Yes, Barack Obama would be wise to memorize the reasons why a motley group of college students in 1995 shouted “We Love Pell!”