Like most outrages perpetrated in Washington, the one I saw recently took place in the area that stretches from Capitol Hill to the White House. Unlike most outrages, it didn’t involve politics. Rather, what galled me was when a limo driver ran a red light as he turned from a middle lane onto busy 14th Street, all the while holding a cellphone to his ear.
I wrote to local authorities about this trifecta of violations, and I hope that driver gets his due. But strange as it may seem, I also thank that crazy driver for reminding me of something important about Washington and its role in our lives. You should think of that crazy driver, too, as REMODELING gets set to deliver a number of stories in coming weeks about rules and regs.
Washington exasperates people because democracy is an exasperating way to organize a society. It depends on the willingness of people to set rules for all and then abide by those rules. It also requires that we care for more than just ourselves, if only because by helping others we protect ourselves as well.
Think about our road system: Every day millions of people, each behind the wheel of their own potentially bone-crushing vehicle, stop at red lights, observe rights of way, and avoid parking next to fire hydrants. Yes, we nibble at the edges of illegality, but the system works; it’s literally democracy in action. We follow the rules so often and so naturally that scofflaws like that limo driver generate amazement and scorn. In Rome or Lagos, such sights are so common that they draw yawns.
Washington also is the rare place in this country where people of contrasting views clash about both the need for rules and the extent to which those rules should apply. On the lead-paint rule, I’ve met remodelers who question whether lead paint is any danger at all and kids’ advoacy groups that make you think saving a single child justifies all the rules and expenses. I rarely see the two sides talking to each other, but you can bet the Environmental Protection Agency gets an earful from both.
Yes, Washington sometimes does things for the wrong reason, such as ramping up OSHA inspections so (rumor has it) the agency can fund its operations. There was an excise tax on long-distance telephone service that Congress created to help fund the Spanish-American War and pretty much kept collecting until courts killed it a decade ago. Bad as these fiscal euphemisms are, they are just a part of human nature. Washington is only as pure as the nation it represents.