'Til Debt Do Us Part

“Pay all your debts, except the debt of love for others – never finish paying that.” Romans 13:8 (TLB)

As predicted, the American government this week reached it’s $14.3 trillion debt limit. With our credit line officially tapped out, our leaders in Washington are scrambling to cobble together a compromise for responding to the situation. As usual, the highly-touted “bipartisan talks” that have been ongoing have produced much in the way of political rhetoric and little in the way of meaningful results. Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto offered a humorous illustration of the controversy on his program Tuesday, comparing America’s debt burden to a 20 pound turkey and the size of proposed multi-year “budget cuts” to a tiny chunk of a chicken thigh.

As absurd as it was to watch a bespectacled, business-suited Cavuto contend with a frozen turkey on air, his point was rock solid: Despite the severe implications of America’s debt crisis, Washington politicians appear unwilling to take any serious measures to get the situation under control.

Congressman Paul Ryan is, to date, the only elected representative that’s put any kind of tangible proposal on the table, and he’s being blasted from both sides of the aisle for daring to touch the sacred cow of American politics: Entitlements. Meanwhile, the President continues to be long on rhetoric and short on substance, Democrats pursue the same old class warfare, and Republicans try to find a way to appease reformers within their party without alienating key constituencies. All of this adds up to a whole lot of inaction, and ultimately, a whole lot of nothing. Meanwhile, the numbers on the national debt clock continue to climb.

At this point, there are still a number of Americans who remain relatively unaffected by the ongoing recession and tough economic picture. Aside from higher prices at the pump (and perhaps a slightly inflated grocery bill), the practical impact of America’s fiscal irresponsibility on these folks has yet to really hit home. But this won’t last forever. Eventually the debt crisis will begin to impact daily life in America at virtually every socioeconomic level – unless we get serious about reversing the problem now.

Getting the national debt under control will not be easy. We didn’t get to this point overnight, and the road back to long-term fiscal solvency will be a long and rocky one. Without discipline, determination, and discernment, restoring strength and confidence in the American economy will not be possible.

Balancing the budget will require discipline.

As with weight loss and New Year’s Resolutions, an ambitious plan to balance the budget will only be as good as Congress’s ability to stick to it. This will require discipline on the part of current and future representatives to faithfully adhere to whatever budget plan emerges from current negotiations. It will do no good to establish lofty goals for reducing the debt if pandering politicians jump ship when the going gets tough.

Balancing the budget will require determination.

Inevitably, feathers are going to be ruffled in the course of the budget debates. As mentioned, we’re already seeing this in response to Paul Ryan’s ambitious debt-reduction plan. If we have any hope of emerging from the deep hole we’ve dug for ourselves, we’ll need leaders who are determined to achieve this important goal and citizens who will support those who have the courage to make the tough choices. This will require placing the common good ahead of individual priorities and ambitions at all levels of the debate.

Balancing the budget will require discernment.

For too long, the American people and those who represent them on Capitol Hill have been unable to distinguish between their wants and their needs. Consequently, the size of government has ballooned and the average citizen’s dependence on government has grown. Now that we’ve maxed out the national credit card, it’s time to set some priorities. The American people need to rid themselves of the harmful, reckless assumption that government exists to do their work for them, take their risks for them, and insulate them from the consequences of their actions. Government, on the other hand, must recognize that its intrusion into every aspect of American life stifles the American spirit, hampers enterprise, and stagnates the economy.

Once upon a time, the American people possessed the virtues of discipline, determination and discernment. Back then, we lived within our means and understood the importance of delayed gratification. But, times have changed. These days, our “Me, Myself, and I” culture insists on instant gratification and has been all too willing to mortgage the future of our children and grandchildren in order to have it all now.

President Obama has been talking a lot lately about “winning the future,” but we won’t be winning anything with a $14.3 trillion millstone hanging around our necks. In order to move forward, the American people must first be willing take a giant step back and make some fundamental changes in our attitude about debt. One thing’s for certain: There’ll be no fixing this without significant discomfort on everyone’s part. The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can get to work fixing this problem.

Ken Connor is the Chairman of the Center for a Just Society in Washington, DC, the former President of the Family Research Council, and a nationally recognized trial lawyer.

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