The Government That Is Not There

'HAVE you missed the government?" Sen. Phil Gramm asked scornfully on television about the government shutdown, the longest in history, with no end in sight.

So saying, Senator Gramm (R) of Texas may have defined the basic issue in this election year. The groans of three-quarters of a million civil servants, furloughed or unpaid, unable to meet mortgage and day-care payments, may not count for much. These, after all, are the "pointy-headed bureaucrats," as former Gov. George Wallace (D) of Alabama called them, whom the Republican revolutionaries came to vanquish. Gramm says the shutdown only proves many of them are not needed.

But the bigger question is: Do the citizens of this country miss their government? Not just the ones you have been reading about - the ones who cannot see the fabulous Vermeer exhibition, cannot get passports to travel, or cannot visit national parks.

I am thinking of the less-visible garment workers who cannot file complaints over substandard wages, of those who lost jobs because of imports and cannot get their unemployment benefits, about the college students who cannot get their grants and loans processed, about the 600,000 elderly Americans nourished by Meals on Wheels, about the Medicare and Medicaid contractors who cannot get reimbursement.

There are other effects that will not be felt for a while, such as the toxic-waste dumps that will not get cleaned up on schedule. Dr. Harold Varmus, director of the National Institutes of Health, told me that research grants to universities are on hold, and that clinical trials of possible medical treatments for AIDS and cancer cannot be pursued.

Do you miss the government? Come the devolution, we may witness protests against not- so-benign neglect. The Children's Defense Fund, for one, is considering mounting a million-child march on Washington on June 1.

Prof. Robert Putnam writes in the magazine American Prospect about the "Strange Disappearance of Civic America," about the Americans who no longer join, trust, or vote. It was a civic America that created the government to serve the general welfare (if you will pardon the expression).

How will Americans answer Gramm's question: "Have you missed the government?" Or, put another way, will the voters who decided in 1994 that the Democrats had run out of steam decide in 1996 that the antigovernment crusaders have generated too much steam?

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