Letter from Goose Rocks Beach Observing Senators and Seals

When we kayak here we almost always paddle out about 200 yards into the ocean and turn right toward the Batson River which borders our cove, and we then wind our way through the marshes. Recently we turned left instead, headed toward the rocks that jut out at low tide. In the winter they are covered with hundreds of Maine Harbor Seals but by the end of June most of them are gone, inhibited by the boats and noise that summer brings.

Last week there were maybe a dozen seals left: big and lazy, mostly grey or black, although one large redhead joined them sunning in the flat hollows of the rocky jetty. They seemed oblivious to us until we got within about 20 yards and then, as if we’d tripped an invisible alarm, almost all of them slid silently into the safety of the frigid water.

At first we were disappointed to not have a closer view. But when we turned the kayak around to head back, we saw that they had swum under or around us and were bobbing in the water, spread out in a nearly perfect semi-circle, as evenly spaced as charms on a necklace, with only their snout, eyes and top of head visible above the water line. It was a simple and instinctual act of self preservation and they had the energy and determination to stay in the water, and maintain their enhanced vigilance, for as long as necessary. We repeated this a few times over the next few days and the results never varied. Perceived threats to one’s existence motivate even the most complacent.

My 15 years working on Capitol Hill gave me ample opportunity to become attuned to almost identical behaviors, and they remain as observable today as ever. Just look at the robust debate over raising the national debt ceiling compared to the lack of debate over what to do about the jobs crisis in America that has left so many of our citizens suffering.

There’s been a frenzy of activity around the national debt negotiation. For more than three weeks it has dominated the headlines. The so-called Gang of Six (from the House and Senate) has been meeting with Vice President Biden at Blair House, and Speaker of the House John Boehner and President Obama had their own personal secret negotiations at the White House last weekend. Tonight there is a White House “summit” to iron out a compromise. What drives it all, in addition to the looming statutory deadline for increasing the debt ceiling, is fear of the political consequences of not acting to reduce the federal debt. Just like the seals roused from their slumber, except perhaps less gracefully, the Senators and members of Congress slide into action, when they sense an existential threat.

But when it comes to the catastrophe of persistent unemployment, and the poverty into which it has plunged a record number of Americans, our political leaders, fearing no political danger, go back to sunning themselves asleep on the rocks. Today’s NY Times business section has a thoughtful essay on just this issue of why the unemployed in America today, “in the grips of its gravest jobs crisis since Franklin D. Roosevelt was in the White House” remain politically invisible @ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/business/the-unemployed-somehow-became-invisible.html?_r=1&hp

Let’s hope that at some point policymakers recognize 9.2% unemployment, and 44 million Americans (half of them children) being on food stamps for the threat that it is: to our education system, our health care system, our competitiveness in the global economy. And that there will be White House Summits and secret meetings with the President about jobs and opportunity, and not just lifting the ceiling on the national debt, but putting a ceiling on hunger and poverty.

As Yogi Berra famously once said “you can observe a lot just by watching”. That is true for Senators and for seals. Observing both at close range is a powerful reminder of the need for us to remain vigilant on behalf of the most vulnerable and voiceless. They may not be perceived as the political threat that pushes politicians into action, but to ignore their plight threatens the very promise of America.

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