To borrow from the movie "Network" ... I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore.
I'm nobody special - your typical middle-income American. My wife and I have a modest home with a modest monthly mortgage that we have paid monthly for over 20 years. With that simple discipline, we avoided being beneficiaries of the housing bubble ... and likewise avoided being victims of the bubble bursting. We have two cars, both of which are over seven years old and paid for in full. We have two children, both of whom are attending college (out of state) and for which we have had to sign for substantial student loans. We have no illusions about those bills coming due - and are planning for them accordingly.
Simply put: we have lived within our means for our entire lives - much like millions of other Americans just like us. And yet, we are facing payment of a monstrous bill that was not of our making ... and which our elected leaders cannot stop bickering about long enough to actually demonstrate some rudimentary fiscal responsibility.
Our nation has collectively been sitting on the edge of its seat since before the election on November 6th, waiting for leadership and direction (ANY leadership and ANY direction) out of the political leaders in Washington. In spite of early promises that issues would not remain unresolved until the end of the year, we have now arrived at December 31st and are standing at the precipice of a fiscal cliff of their creation. We have received little from Congress and the President beyond finger-pointing, blame, and rigid insistence on inviolable party positions.
With one exception - on Friday the President approved a raise for all members of Congress.
In the wake of the global financial crisis of the last four years, the one thing needed most from these officials - leadership - is shamefully missing. Even the most tenured followers of American politics have indicated they have never before seen such extreme partisanship in our country.
The real question our nation needs to be facing, in the wake of this dearth of common sense leadership, is how we can most effectively hold our elected leaders responsible for their actions (or lack thereof). The most rudimentary argument of course centers on term limits; the contrarian view asserts that in fact term limits already exist (they're called elections). The fact remains that our nation's political landscape, and more importantly its election process, have been overtaken by the influence of two things: money and job security. Incumbents can spend unholy amounts on re-election campaigns, funded by donations from corporations, political action committees, and wealthy donors too numerous to count.
So if we citizens have completely lost the ability to hold our elected leaders accountable (and I believe we have), what course of action can we find that would possibly make them turn away from their committed path of divisiveness and inaction?
I believe Warren Buffett was prescient in his CNBC interview of July 7, 2011: "I can end the deficit in five minutes ... You just pass a law that says that anytime there's a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election." www.cnbc.com/id/43671706
Article V of the U.S. Constitution mandates that Congress propose amendments to the Constituion on application of the Legislatures of two-thirds of the states. (Alternatively, a Constitutional Amendment can be proposed by two-thirds approval of both the Senate and the House of Representatives, but I believe the prospect of that happening is laughable). Once proposed, an Amendment is ratified and added to the Constitution upon approval of 75% of the states.
I would love to see an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that considers the following:
- Warren Buffett's aforementioned position. It holds members of Congress accountable for their own action. If they choose to operate the country in a fiscal imbalance that exceeds 3% of the country's gross domestic product ... their current term is their last term.
- I would further expand Mr. Buffett's position by including the mandate that Congress pass a budget. There will be no forther opportunities for "extensions" which allow the government to continue to operate without a budget in place. This budget must also account for a minimum 5% reduction in the national debt per year.
- Finally - until such time as the United States no longer carries a national debt, all federal budgets MUST be balanced. Spending cannot exceed the prior year's actual income; budgets cannot use projected income as a valid determinant of revenue.
Additional provisions I would like to see enacted:
- An end to Congressional pensions. Serving in Congress was NEVER meant to be a career position - and the notion of former members continuing to draw their salary after leaving office is utterly laughable. Can you think of any employer that would willingly pay your salary to you, for life, after you leave their service? Neither can I.
- Elimination of tenure. Continually re-electing someone because of their seniority, and therefore the position (and influence) they hold in Washington, simply interferes with our senators and representatives acting as true representatives of their own constituency.
- Members of Congress pay into the Social Security and Medicare systems, the same as all other Americans. They will, of course, also be entitled to receive such benefits upon reaching the appropriate age.
- Members of Congress may avail themselves of the same opportunities for retirement planning as all other Americans. The Congressional Retirement Fund will be eliminated; all funds will be transferred to the Social Security system.
- Funds in the Social Security and Medicare systems CANNOT be used for purposes of balancing a federal budget. These entitlements are committed for a specific purpose; consequently, it is immoral and irresponsible to use these figures for purposes of balancing the ledger.
- Elimination of unfunded mandates. All expenditures anticipated for government mandated programs (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) must be accounted for in the annual budget. It will be unlawful for Congress to pass a budget that reflects a shortfall in funding for mandated programs.
- Congressional health care is eliminated. Members of Congress shall avail themselves of the same health care opportunities available to the general public.
- It will be unlawful for Congress to vote itself a pay raise. Any raises received by members of Congress will be capped by the annual calculated cost of living increase applied to Social Security and Medicare.
- All provisions of this Amendment are retroactive to all previous members of Congress. Any and all existing contracts with and benefits to current and prior members of Congress are revoked.
How pracitical is this, really ... and what are the chances it could actually be done?
The timing on this is PERFECT: We are at the beginning of a new legislative session, with 22 months until the next (mid-term) Congressional elections. There is ample time to force a change in our electoral system; seven of the 27 Amendments to the Constitution were implemented in less than one year. The 26th Amendment (granting the right to vote at age 18) was ratified exactly 100 days after it was passed by Congress.
It is undeniable that the demands on American's time have grown substantially in recent years ... as has the volume of information that we are bombarded with. I believe these increased demands on each of us have unfortunately brought more reliance on others' decision-making (particularly our politicians). The grass-roots efforts to make sure our elected representatives hear our voices, and more importantly take need of them, have been evaporating. The only way for Americans to actually take control of our nation's current lack of fiscal discipline is (to borrow from Nike) to just do it. The alternative does not bear further consideration.
No rational mind can argue that our current fiscal path is sustainable. The longer we allow it to stay that way, the more dire the consequences when we finally find the courage - or the leadership - to comprehensively resolve the problems.
"The only way to change something that's not sustainable is to change it." - Warren Buffett