Congress's real problem? A lack of restraint on spending

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By Tom Coburn
Friday, February 26, 2010

For the past several weeks the American people have been inundated with analysis about what's wrong with Washington largely from the perspective of Washington insiders who are frustrated about health care and political retirements. We're told that gridlock, procedural holds, partisanship and extreme ideology are preventing members of Congress from working together. While some of this analysis is true -- Washington is petty, partisan and shortsighted -- few are acknowledging that Congress does enjoy remarkable unity in one critical area: spending beyond our means.

In the past two years, an institution supposedly paralyzed by gridlock has succeeded in passing the most consequential pieces of legislation it handles every year -- appropriations bills -- by 3-to-1 margins. In the past few weeks, Congress has increased the debt limit from $12.1 trillion to $14.3 trillion but made no effort to eliminate any wasteful or duplicative spending. Since 1994, both parties have worked together to create 90,000 new earmarks, with only a handful of earmarks going down to defeat.

The problem, therefore, is not gridlock. The problem is that Congress is working in a bipartisan fashion to make our economic future less secure. The facts show that Congress is controlled by a supermajority of members from both parties who believe it is fine to borrow and spend far beyond our means and avoid hard choices.

In the past decade, this consensus has helped put our nation on a path toward economic ruin. Total federal spending has doubled since 2000, increasing at three times the rate of inflation -- far faster than family budgets. By the end of 2010, our national debt will equal the size of our entire gross domestic product (GDP), which many economists view as a tipping point. A study released last month by economists Carmen Reinhart of the University of Maryland and Kenneth Rogoff of Harvard found that when advanced nations reach this tipping point they experience slower economic growth and face higher interest rates and inflation.

This is a dangerous position in light of our future challenges. The impending collapse of our entitlement programs -- Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- could cause tax rates to double if we do nothing. If we try to borrow our way out of insolvency, we could face a collapse in the value of the dollar, skyrocketing interest rates, hyperinflation or all of the above. Our decision to give potential adversaries enormous leverage over both our foreign policy and domestic economy is a national security crisis waiting to happen, according to experts such as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

President Obama's appointment of a debt commission to address spending is an indirect rebuke of the spending supermajority when a direct rebuke would be more helpful. The American people believe we already have a commission to confront our debt. It's called the United States Congress. If members of Congress aren't up to that task, we don't need a new commission, we need a new Congress.

The message of hope that America needs to hear is that individual citizens really do have the power to fire and replace members of the spending supermajority. Since just 1994, the country has experienced several "change" elections that resulted in shifts in power in Washington. These change elections show that our political system is working. When the American people are engaged, new representatives and senators are elected.

The gridlock theorists should remember the wise words of Thomas Jefferson: "When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty."

Underneath much of the analysis about gridlock is a real and wonderful fear of the people. It is heard in heated rhetoric about the "angry mobs," the "tea partiers" and so on. January's special election in Massachusetts shows that the balance of power is shifting back toward the people, and toward liberty.

When John Podesta, a top Democratic adviser and former White House chief of staff, recently said our political system "sucks" -- apparently because a majority of the American people rejected a government takeover of health care -- he was unintentionally highlighting Jefferson's point. In our system, angry mobs -- motivated citizens -- are the lifeblood of democracy. The threat to liberty comes from angry elites -- elected leaders who ignore the obvious will of the people until they are voted out of office.

The problem in Washington is simple: The future of our republic is at risk not because we disagree but because we agree intensely about spending our way into oblivion. We are broke, but not broken. The American people have the power to put our nation on a sustainable course and end the spending supermajority that threatens our future.

The writer, a physician, is a Republican senator from Oklahoma.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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