Let's be responsible

Posted: Mar 15, 2006 12:06 AM

The importance of personal responsibility is taught everyday in American classrooms, churches and at dinner tables and ball fields—everywhere, it seems, but Washington, DC. There, in the shadows of monuments to Washington and Lincoln, responsibility needs to be reinvigorated by politicians who seem to be more intent on lavishing taxpayer dollars on special interest groups than providing for a safe and prosperous American future.

As concerned citizens, we cannot tolerate such irresponsibility. We cannot merely sit on the sidelines while politicians and government bureaucrats spend away our future. As my new book Getting America Right: The True Conservative Values Our Nation Needs Today explains, we can and we must demand responsibility from our elected officials.

First, let’s acknowledge a basic truth: politicians are human beings. As people, I’m sure they want to do good things, but they are also tempted by the power of billions and billions of dollars that can be spent for causes that help them more than help us as the American people. If they yield to the great temptation of personal gain versus principled behavior, they are acting in an irresponsible way. Case in point: runaway federal spending.

At the time of the writing of Getting America Right, the national debt was a staggering $7.7 trillion. Tough to wrap your mind around a number like that, isn’t it? Well, then get this: If, like any company in the nation, the government had to include known future liabilities in its bookkeeping, estimates indicate the national debt would actually be somewhere in the range of $72 trillion. Again, that’s t-r-i-l-l-i-o-n. U.S. Comptroller David Walker has called this figure "chilling." 

You can say that again.

Seventy-two trillion dollars in red ink would scare most people straight. Not for many politicians and government bureaucrats.

They keep right on spending.

Consider three examples from the 2004 You Won’t Believe This file:

• Congress spent $2 million on The First Tee Program in St. Augustine, Florida to teach young people about golf and values.
• Congress spent $50 million to build an enclosed rain forest in Iowa.

• Congress spent $800,000 to provide Disneyland with a “free” shuttle service for its guests.

The money for these outrageous projects is made available via a congressional practice known as earmarking—that is, skimming money from appropriations bills for local projects that benefit a small number of citizens.

In recent years, earmarking has increased at an alarming rate. For example, in 1982 Congress passed a highway bill containing only ten earmarks. By 2005, the number had grown to over 6,300.

As reckless as this practice is, it still only accounts for a small portion of our fiscal mess. The real damage comes in the form of billions of dollars wasted each year on unaccountable federal agencies. Consider two examples:

First, according to a Treasury Department report, some $24.5 billion of taxpayer money vanished into thin air in 2003. The government knows it was spent by someone, somewhere, on something, but auditors do not know who spent it, where it was spent, or on what. I don’t know about you, but I get pretty upset when I lose a $20 bill, nevermind $24.5 billion. This sort of error is simply unacceptable.

Second, a Department of Defense audit found that Air Force and Navy personnel used government-funded credit cards over an 18-month period to charge at least $102,400 for admission to entertainment events, $48,250 for gambling, $69,300 for cruises, and $73,950 for exotic dance clubs.

When government acts irresponsibly it sends a message to its citizens that responsibility is out of fashion. Eat, drink and be merry, it says. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Live beyond your means. Spend money like a teenager with a credit card at the mall. After all, that’s the way your government is being run: why should you be any different?

Memo to government: enough is enough. It’s time to be responsible, and Getting America Right has a four point plan to do just that. Here are our first two suggestions:

1. Let the light shine in

We must require all government agencies to disclose what they are doing, in clear language, on websites accessible to all comers. A good example would be a law that mandated that every congressional spending measure and conference report be posted on the Internet for at least twenty-four hours before members could vote on it. This would enable bloggers and other media outlets to sniff out and expose pork projects or other forms of irresponsible behavior. 

2. Make government play by the rules

The government’s rules can and should be made far clearer and simpler. All too often, citizens confront government regulations that are unclear, contradictory and camouflaged in legalese. For example, IRS regulations now comprise some 6.7 ill-chosen words—eight and a half times more than were needed to create the elegant prose of the King James Bible. Just as businesses have been forced to make their documents intelligible, the government’s rules can and should be made far clearer and simpler.

To learn more about my plan to demand responsibility in government, I hope you’ll read Getting America Right. Together we can redirect Washington back to the roots of what has made our nation the most powerful and prosperous place on earth – personal responsibility.