Since May of this year, I’ve had the honor of representing Hawaii in the United States Congress. In that short time, I’ve seen a shocking abuse of taxpayer money and a negligent response to our nation’s dire economic situation. We need a new way of doing things in Washington.
But to do things differently, we need to think about our problems and potential solutions in a different way. We won’t fix the problems in Washington unless we change the way that Washington thinks.
Politicians cling to the fantasy that government is the source of economic prosperity. Not even close. We need to do three things to change this dangerous collective mindset.
First, we need to balance the budget. We’ve had balanced budgets in the past. Fifteen years ago, Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress worked together to balance the budget. In response, the economy boomed. But, as always happens, Congress fell back into the habit of spending, borrowing and taxing.
We can end that destructive cycle by adopting a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. A balanced budget amendment would require the federal government to live within its means by directing Congress to spend only what the Treasury takes in as revenue. There would be an exception for times of war and national emergencies.
Balancing the budget is not a radical idea. Millions of Americans and thousands of small businesses balance their budgets. They create goals, examine income, and make tough decisions with limited resources. The federal government must do the same.
This isn’t a decision that we can put off. The national debt exceeds $13.5 trillion or $42,000 for every man, woman, and child in America. At the current rate of federal spending, our debt will exceed the size of our economy in the next two years. The Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State all say that our national debt poses a threat to the stability and security of America. Let’s end the threat.
A balanced budget amendment is pending in Congress. I’ve signed onto the proposed amendment as a cosponsor. I call upon my colleagues, and any candidate for federal office, to pledge support for the balanced budget amendment.
Second, we need to reform the earmarking process. Advocates of the status quo say that earmarks make up only 2 percent of the overall federal budget and that getting rid of earmarks will not resolve our long-term fiscal problems. The talking heads ignore that earmarks, or “political pork,” grease the wheels for trillion-dollar spending measures, or appropriations bills, as the measures pass through Congress. To put it bluntly, earmarks are used to secure votes on bigger spending measures.
This is not to say that all member-initiated spending is bad. Earmarks simply need to be proposed, debated and considered in an open forum. If an earmark has merit, as I believe many earmarks do, it will pass scrutiny.
If I am fortunate to earn re-election to Congress, I will take a seat on the Appropriations Committee where these spending bills are crafted. From that seat, I will advocate for fiscal responsibility and government accountability, while supporting responsible spending for Hawaii and other states.
Finally, Congress needs to reform the legislative process. In recent years, bills comprising thousands of pages and spending trillions of dollars have passed through Congress with little review and debate. Indeed, Members of Congress, their constituents, and the news media sometimes had only minutes to read these huge bills. As Speaker Pelosi infamously said about the health care reform bill, “We need to pass the bill so we can find out what’s in it.” That is irresponsible. Before representatives vote on a bill, they should actually understand what the bill does.
To provide transparency and greater opportunity for comment on legislation, the Speaker of the House should not schedule a vote without giving Representatives at least 72 hours to review and evaluate each bill. We can no longer tolerate a process that keeps legislative language from the light of day. All interested and involved parties should understand legislation before the vote. This will provide the kind of accountability that returns the power back to the people and ensures that they have a say in what goes on in Congress.
Three ideas. Three steps toward changing the thinking in Washington. Let’s start today.
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Charles K. Djou is an adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University. He is an Afghanistan war veteran and a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. Djou served in the U.S. House, Honolulu City Council and Hawaii State House.