Last January former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and eight other state officials were criminally charged for their alleged roles in the Flint water crisis that accounted for at least 12 deaths and 80 people sickened. Of course, the full effects on the population from the lead poisoning the drinking water, resulting from changes in the infrastructure implemented by emergency managers to save money, cannot yet be fully assessed.
The crimes with which the eight were charged range from perjury to misconduct while in office to involuntary manslaughter. Snyder himself faces two counts of willful neglect, which carry penalties of fines up to $1,000 and maximum of one year in prison for each count.
These penalties for the damage to human life Snyder carelessly oversaw are hardly stiff; but after watching four years of watching Trump and his administration escape accountability for a wide variety of corrupt and arguably criminal behaviors, it is refreshing, to say the least, to see government leaders held accountable for implementing policies inimical to their constituents’ lives, whether through carelessness or outright malice.
Too often our government officials do, in fact, engage in “willful neglect” of their constituents’ needs and concerns.
Just look at the recent American Rescue Plan Act which no Republicans in Congress supported. Senators such as Mitch McConnell and Mitt Romney continued to assert, despite every human account grounded in reality, that the relief was unnecessary because Americans are not actually experiencing desperate and dire need. And never mind that the bill provides hundreds of billions of dollars to fund a coordinated COVID-19 response, which includes distributing the vaccine as quickly and widely as possible.
The Republicans obstruction of relief packages, dating back to HEROES Act which House Democrats passed last May and McConnell refused to bring to the Senate floor for a vote, certainly constitutes a willful neglect of the American people’s welfare.
Indeed, such willful neglect is built into the defining ideology Republicans hold dear, one that centers the belief not just in small government but, relatedly, that it’s just simply not government’s role to use its resources, including the tax dollars it collects from all of us, to address people’s needs.
It would be great if, just as in Snyder’s case, government officials could more frequently be held criminally accountable for abusing their positions and running the government as a criminal enterprise, even as they engage in policy-making that neglects or is directly hostile to the lives of their constituents.
Take Trump’s non-response to, his utter carelessness toward, the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent study by the Brookings Institute highlighted the costs to human life resulting from his neglect, determining:
The United States squandered both money and lives in its response to the coronavirus pandemic, and it could have avoided nearly 400,000 deaths with a more effective health strategy and trimmed federal spending by hundreds of billions of dollars while still supporting those who needed it.
As Jason Easley assessed this situation, writing for PoliticusUsa,
Hundreds of thousands of Americans died because Donald Trump refused to put public health ahead of his reelection campaign. Hundreds of thousands of families lost loved ones because Republicans allowed Donald Trump not to place public health first.
A political party that willfully refuses to act at a federal level during a pandemic does not deserve to ever be in power again.
And it would be nice, too, if in addition to being barred from political office, these folks were held criminally responsible.
It is precisely this willful neglect that constitutes their running government as a criminal enterprise.
With Congress’s passing of the American Rescue Plan Act and President Joe Biden on the verge of revealing a $3 trillion infrastructure package, we need to see that Biden and the Democrats are engaged in de-criminalizing government itself, meaning they are engaged in running the government so that it serves people and addresses their needs, directing resources with this priority.
This mode of leadership is in direct opposition to the typical modus operandi of Republicans, who direct government in ways hostile to and neglectful of the people, indeed at their very expense.
Republicans have already expressed opposition to Biden’s yet-to-be-fully-revealed infrastructure plan which, early reports signal, promises upgrades to aging infrastructure such roads, bridges, rail and cyber equipment; a tax code overhaul that benefits workers; a boost for caregivers; increased access to health care; and clean energy investments.
And yet America has been crumbling waiting for the infrastructure bills and healthcare plans Republicans have promised for years.
We only need look to the recent collapse of the electrical grids in Texas, resulting in needless suffering and death, because of willful neglect, which sometimes goes by the term “de-regulation.”
Consider the fates of El Paso, subject to regulation and oversight, and the rest of Texas during this crisis.
El Paso, did not suffer the way the rest of the Texas did because they rely on an electrical grid that crosses state lines and is connected to fourteen other states; it is subject to federal regulations. When the adverse weather struck El Paso, the city could rely on the other states for energy.
El Paso learned its lesson after a 2011 storm knocked out its grid. They devoted the resources to winterize to serve the people. The rest of Texas, which intentionally kept its grids within state borders to avoid regulation, did not. Avoiding regulations, they did not invest in winterizing, and they were also able to make energy scarce, so companies could charge more and profit off the people.
These companies were more interested in making money than serving people’s needs, and Texas Republicans aided and abetted this willful neglect by not regulating their behaviors.
This death and suffering is a direct result of Texas’ state government willful neglect, just as the death and suffering in Flint falls on Snyder’s neglect.
Building back better, which is how Biden characterizes his agenda of running government to address American’s needs, is, indeed, an effort to de-criminalize government itself.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.