This week, I watched a CNN special, “9/11.” It revolved around one firehouse and two French civilians who were working with the fire company to make a documentary in 2001 on an incoming firefighter’s nine-month training. Unbelievably, the two French brothers wound up taking incredible videos of what happened inside the Twin Towers after the terrorist attacks. The video was difficult to watch, but one reassuring thought struck me: Americans are at their best in times of crisis.
Tragedy struck in 2004 when a giant tidal wave literally destroyed everything along the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. My guess is that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans have ever visited those countries, and yet Presidents Clinton and Bush started a drive to raise money to help the families who were stricken, and hundreds of Americans responded by writing generous checks without giving it a second thought. People were in trouble, and we responded. This wasn’t an isolated example, as we proved a few years later when a massive earthquake destroyed much of Haiti’s infrastructure and housing.
The flooding that just took place along our East Coast from Hurricane Ida provides another example of this wonderful trait in our people. The devastation was hard to look at in photos and TV footage; the storms wiped out some towns and flooding destroyed many houses and businesses. But America’s first responders and some ordinary folks did everything they could to rescue people from harm, employing what looked like an armada of boats. No one cared about the ethnicity of those in need, nor their religion or politics. People just knew that they were our fellow citizens and they needed help.
All of this makes me feel good about Americans but, at the same time, it makes me wonder how we can respond so caringly to people in need and yet be so insensitive toward those who are suffering daily, experiencing their own personal crises.
It’s hard to figure out the answer to this, but I think some of it comes from a lack of leadership. It appears that many of our leaders will say and do anything to touch the nerve that appeals to our worst instincts and provokes hate and discord rather than kindness and caring. The current situation in Washington is a perfect example of this. Hatred and distrust seem to prevail on both sides of the political aisle.
Many of the things included in President Biden’s third legislative initiative, which targets the repair of the social safety net, are things that almost everyone would agree many people need help dealing with. But the plan is almost unanimously opposed by Republicans in Congress, and by more than a few Democrats, as well. They say they are afraid that it costs too much and there is no acceptable way to pay for it. Republicans and Democrats alike say that families can’t afford to pay more taxes, but many of the potential no-votes in Congress know we could easily raise certain taxes without hurting the economy or working people. They are just afraid to take the political risk.
In my capacity as co-chairman of Building America’s Future, an advocacy group dedicated to rebuilding our infrastructure, I appeared many times before Congress to make the case for raising the gasoline tax. A terrific Republican congressman from Ohio, the late Steve LaTourette, confided after my testimony before the Transportation Committee, “Look, I know you are right that we should raise the gas tax, but it is not going to happen. If we could vote on it in a secret vote, we would get over 350 yes-votes in the House and 75 to 80 in the Senate, but no one wants to be on the record for raising taxes.” Many years later, this is still the view in D.C. and we haven’t raised the federal gas tax since 1994.
Think of the good we could do to help Americans, from the poorest to working families, if we were willing to put together a revenue increase package that would have virtually no effect on them. How could we do that? It’s simple. Consider the following:
- Raise the corporate tax rate not to 28 percent, as President Biden has suggested, but to 25 percent. That was the level for which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce lobbied prior to the 2017 Trump tax cut, when the rate was 35 percent. A 25 percent rate would provide significant revenue. If there is legitimate concern about some small businesses with low revenue, their tax rate could remain 21 percent.
- Second, establish a minimum tax that every company would pay, at 12 percent to 15 percent. No one looking fairly at this issue would say that companies that have revenue should pay nothing.
- Third, get rid of the loss carry forward tax loophole that benefits only hedge fund managers, many of whom make 1,000 times of what the average working family does annually.
People who care so much about their fellow citizens when tragedy strikes must understand in their hearts that those needing help are facing difficult challenges. I think if our leaders clearly identified the legitimate needs of most American families and developed a fair revenue package that would be paid for by those who can afford it, most Americans would sign on.
As time goes on, our memories dim, but there are times when you can remember clearly what happened – such as on 9/11. I remember that evening, Judge Marjorie Rendell and I gathered with friends in Philadelphia, talking in low voices about the day’s horrible events and how much we needed to put differences aside and act as one country, one people – no Democrats, no Republicans, no easterners, no southerners, no conservatives, no progressives, no economic or ethnic differences … just Americans.
Though none of us that day had suffered any direct loss, in all our hearts there was a great sense of sadness and loss, and an outpouring of generosity and spirit. We wanted to help those affected because they were all Americans.
So, I suggest that we remember how we felt on 9/11 and how much we wanted to protect our country and its citizens. The challenges we face today are surely not as graphic as those following the terrorist attacks of 20 years ago, but in some ways, they are just important. We need to respond with the same spirit of compassion and generosity. We are, after all, each of us Americans.
Edward G. Rendell was the 45th governor of Pennsylvania. He is a former mayor of Philadelphia and former district attorney in that city. He served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee during the 2000 presidential election. Follow him on Twitter @GovEdRendell.