Eliminate the rot at the heart of debt problem


By Frank Wessling

Thank God for August. It’s county fair time, state fair time, back-to-school time, last- minute vacation time. Our minds are occupied with immediate pleasures and duties of life.

We can turn away from last month’s indecent drama in Washington where factional politics ruled the day in a manner that must have had our founding fathers, especially our first president, spinning in their graves.

In his 1796 Farewell Address after serving two terms, George Washington warned that the competitive “spirit of party” was a constant danger to national union and the common good. He could see that parties in free countries “are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty.” However, he also saw a “constant danger of excess.”

Political competition is like a fire that will not be quenched, Washington noted. Thus, “it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame lest, instead of warming, it should consume.”


We now have something like that going on in the seat of our national government. The desire for political advantage burns so hot that the normal reasonable accommodations required for governing become impossible.

The American people as a whole can see that. Eighty-two percent of us disapprove of the way Congress is performing, according to a New York Times/CBS News survey taken last week. That’s a record. Everyone involved in the negotiations over budgeting and raising the national debt ceiling was faulted, President Obama and all parties in Congress, with Republicans given slightly more blame – 72 percent – than Democrats – 66 percent.

At one point during July’s back-and-forth drama between the president and Congress, Obama and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner crafted a compromise that would have cut into the growth pattern of many government programs while raising revenue by cutting some exemptions in the tax code. This reasonable move toward getting budget deficits under control was unacceptable to the hard-line “No” faction of Tea Party Republicans in the House. To them, any tinkering with taxes that removes a benefit for the affluent is the same as “raising” taxes and will not be tolerated.

Then, in order to meet the deadline for raising the debt ceiling, Congress set up a special committee to do something in coming months that could not be done now. And some people say that religious faith is absurd!

There is a rot in our self-government. We don’t pay for what we want because we’re able to meet our bills by borrowing from China and the rest of the world. Roughly half of the national budget is borrowed money. Our wants have now run so far beyond our willingness to pay that we can’t imagine doing it. Tax rates on the affluent and rich would have to go back to truly progressive steps.

We would have to adjust our thinking on retirement and its benefits. And when we decide to make war, we would all have to join in paying for it now, not dump the cost on soldiers, their families, and future generations.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have asked Congress to think about the common good of the country, especially how to ensure that everyone is given fair opportunity for a life of dignity. A letter from Bishops Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., and Howard Hubbard of Albany, N.Y., on behalf of all the bishops concluded:

“The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated. Their voices are too often missing in these debates, but they have the most compelling moral claim on our consciences and our common resources.”

They said they “fear the human and social costs of substantial cuts to programs that serve families working to escape poverty, especially food and nutrition, child development and education, and affordable housing.”

Looking to the future, they offer this:

“A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons. It requires shared sacrifice by all, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs fairly.”

With that attitude we could begin to eliminate the rot at the heart of our debt problem.

In the meantime, go to the fair, any fair, and enjoy simple pleasures.

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