What the national park proposal and a junk food ban have in common

I’m proud to be an American. It sucks that we live in such polarized and contentious times that I feel obligated to clarify posts in anticipation of the overly emotional responses some readers have to my ideas. But they do, so I do. I am also a firm believer in the system of governance our forebears created for us.

But that doesn’t mean citizens shouldn’t occasionally pause to assess what we’ve done to and with that system of governance since it was created. One of the things we’ve done is we’ve grown to expect too much, while simultaneously wanting it to do more and more. It makes no sense.

Commissioner Mary Mayhew speaks at the opening of a new regional home for state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor offices in South Portland on Jan. 5, 2015. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Commissioner Mary Mayhew speaks at the opening of a new regional home for state Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Labor offices in South Portland on Jan. 5, 2015. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

It makes no sense that Congress has an approval rating of 11 percent, yet we keep asking it to be responsible for more and more. Not just asking, but harassing it to do more and more. Recent news offers a couple glaring examples.

We have the Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew asking the federal government to grant a waiver to restrict purchases of soda and candy with SNAP benefits — a waiver she knows is highly improbable, but she “just can’t stop trying.”

“We’ve got to create pressure on the federal government, on Congress, to enact these commonsense reforms,” she said.

Really, Commissioner Mayhew?

Here’s a short list of the more pressing issues Congress is already struggling to handle that are within the purview of DHHS:

1. what to do about childhood hunger and general food insecurity

2. what to do about the addiction epidemic killing people in Maine

3. what to do about the family structures being decimated by the fallout from the addiction epidemic

4. what to do about community mental health service systems that are failing the severely mentally ill in the wake of deinstitutionalization.

I could do an entire blog post on such a list, and I still wouldn’t get to restricting working poor parents from buying their kids an occasional candy bar.

Then there’s the debate about a national park in the Millinocket region. Pro-parkers presented our congressional delegation with a petition signed mostly by out of staters that was in support of the park. They have also been floating the strategy of having President Barack Obama designate the land held by Elliotsville Plantation Inc. as a national monument.

Fortunately, three out of four members responded negatively to the idea in a letter, which expressed support for some of the many concerns raised by the anti-park side of the debate. Our delegates were wise to highlight the fact that the National Park Service itself is a glaring example of underfunded and overwhelmed federal programming. How did it get this way?

Because of a century of thinking more and more parks and monuments could be added regardless of our country’s ability to maintain them.

Besides the fact that increasing the burden on an overburdened agency is inane, almost any slightly informed citizen could compile a short list of things that are of more pressing concern for the president and Congress at this time. National and international security comes to mind. As does the DHHS list already mentioned — those issues are problems all across rural America.

Again, I could do an entire post about such a list, maybe even two or three, and never get to “what to do about less than 100,000 acres in northern Maine.” As citizens, we need to accept part of the reason Congress can’t meet our needs is because we are expecting too darn much.

There is a sweet spot were these two separate examples converge, and the federal government can play a role there: improved economic opportunity for all, equal access to safe, affordable housing and health care for all, and equal access to quality education for all. If citizens are going to harass government to do things, let’s start there.

I think we’d be amazed how many problems our well-designed system of governance can solve, if there was a sustained focus in those areas. SNAP enrollment would drop, and tax coffers would be bolstered — maybe even enough to start maintaining the national parks and monuments we already have. Maybe even, sometime down the road, we could add a few more.

And newly emerging middle class families could afford to go visit them.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.