"The middle class in this country has no more to give. The poor have nothing to give, so let's go and get it from those who got it." That's what I said on the floor of the U.S. Senate as we debated the budget.
Everywhere I went that weekend, from my uncle's wake in an ethnic neighborhood of Baltimore to a supermarket in the suburbs, people stopped me to say that I struck a deep chord. Part of the reason is that senators aren't supposed to talk like people do -- the language of Washington is a foreign language to most Americans.
When Congress and the administration talk about the budget, they talk about process, numbers and statistics. They see it all as a power struggle and a turf war. And from staff to lobbyists to media pundits, the talk is of who's up and who's down.
They just don't get it. They have no idea what the middle class in this country is up against, or what the average American is feeling. They don't know, and sometimes it seems they don't care to know.
The faults in this budget are not a failure of process, and the issue is not who won or lost which amendment on what technicality. It's a failure of attitude and failure to hear what people are saying. People are left asking, "What is going on?"
The budget is about day-to-day lives. It's about middle class families who need help with tuition costs, about a grandmother who is worried about going bankrupt because grandfather has been in a nursing home for two years and about a young family that wants to buy a home but can't afford a down payment. It is about the working people who have given more than their fair share and who are exhausted and exasperated.
Middle class Americans have no more to give because they are either tuition poor or they are mortgage poor. They have no more to give because they have been stretched by high property taxes, skyrocketing health insurance costs and hyper car insurance rates.
When people talk to me about the budget, they talk about their hopes and their worries. They want a budget with real savings. They want a budget that doesn't forget what it means to live from paycheck to paycheck. They are tired of budgets and government that pay lip service to their concerns.
Their values are mocked. They save, then watch S&L speculators squander their dollars. They pay their taxes, but wonder: For what? For a Hubble telescope that can't see? For planes that cost more than a small state's education budget but only fly on a wing and a prayer? For prisons that mostly turn out better crooks?
There are no rewards for the good guys -- those who go by the rules and make the extra effort. There is no recognition for the moms and dads who are struggling to give their kids a good education and a safe neighborhood or for the grandmothers and grandfathers who have spent a lifetime contributing to this country's success and want and deserve a secure retirement.
Those families know what it means to work hard. They are asking us to make the government work just as hard for them.
In many ways, this budget was the last gasp of the '80s. As we work through the '90s, we must put together budgets for the 21st century -- budgets that reflect the values of Main Street, not the values of Wall Street. We must stand for hard work, thrift and opportunity, not glitz and greed and lavish spending.
In this new decade, our budgets cannot reward the elitist culture that spent the '80s glorifying the values of Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley, idolizing corporate raiders and junk-bond scam artists. In the '90s, we must insist that those who pay as much for lawyers to avoid taxes as the average American pays in taxes be held to a new standard.
It's time to hear what people are saying. It's time to stop speaking the language of Washington and start speaking the everyday values of working America. I think our budgets of the '90s must have a new framework -- with three principles.
First, burden-sharing. Not just with our allies, but among ourselves. Those who were given the opportunities in the '80s should help make the opportunities in the '90s. Not a redistribution of wealth, but a redistribution of opportunity -- and a society that promotes excellence, not elitism. If we must raise taxes, then those who have benefited the most from our country's success should be the first to ante up.
Second, no gimmicks. Stop hiding the deficit by writing IOUs to the Social Security Trust Fund. Quit pretending that stunts like shutting down the government are anything more than empty gestures and costly symbolism.
And third, let's get a dollar's worth of service for a dollar's worth of taxes. Our federal budget has no expectations for performance. Why should defense contractors overcharge, then get more contracts? Why should we keep asking people to pay for programs that don't give them their money's worth? And Congress itself -- what would happen if we had to live with pay for performance?
The fiscal fantasies of the '80s will echo for years to come. We must make investments for a new century and a new millennium, but we must also invest in a new attitude.
In the '90s, we will not be able to buy into each high-tech hype or social engineering scheme that comes along. We will have to question the efficacy of every government program. We will have to make value judgments that attach consequences to behavior. And we will have to hear and heed what people are saying. The writer is a Democratic senator from Maryland.