By Chris Talgo
America is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Congress has accrued a $20.5 trillion debt, and unfunded liabilities amount to more than $70 trillion.
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, each generation has been complicit in steady expansion of government. The Baby Boomers took this crooked deal to a whole new and unsustainable level. As the nation rushes headlong toward disaster, the Millennial generation will soon have to take over the steering wheel and assume responsibility for averting a crash or living with the consequences.
Straying Off Course
“The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” Alexis de Tocqueville made this shrewd observation shortly after the American Revolution.
In 1831, the year of Tocqueville’s American tour, Congress authorized a $17.1 million budget ($445 million in 2015 dollars). Congress allocated none of the public’s money for welfare, health care, or pensions. Bribing the public was not yet a rite of Congress. Hence, in 1831, the Republic seemed safe.
One hundred and eighty six years later, the fate of the Republic is hanging by a thread—the one thing on which nearly all American seem to agree. In 2017, Congress authorized a mind-boggling $4 trillion budget. This astronomical spending binge includes $1 trillion on Social Security, $1.1 trillion on Medicare and Medicaid, and $360 billion on welfare payments. Public bribery with the public’s money is widespread.
Given the rampant corruption of Congress, the complicity of the courts, and metastasis of the Executive Branch, has the sun set for good on the American Experiment? Not necessarily. Herbert Stein’s Law states that “if something cannot go on forever, it will stop.” This axiom aptly applies to the state of public bribery perpetuated by Congress.
Eventually, Congress will run out of money with which to bribe the public. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are hurtling towards bankruptcy. Despite this dire fiscal situation, modern history demonstrates that Congress is unlikely to halt its public bribery swindle. Too many members of Congress are more concerned with using the public’s money to bribe the public in hopes of ensuring reelection.
The decline of the American Republic is not set in stone. The American people possess the power to reverse course. First, voters must hold Congress accountable for dereliction of duty. Second, voters must demand a return to fiscal responsibility. Third, state legislatures must exercise federalism and initiate institutional reforms to restrain the legislative branch.
Drain the Swamp
The foremost remedy for the sickness the government has inflicted on the nation is for voters to hold Congress responsible for its misdeeds. Voter backlash is a staple of American democracy. In 2010, public outrage against government bailouts culminated in the Tea Party Movement, which sent political shockwaves that reverberated throughout the DC Swamp.
The next manifestation of voter backlash should be directed toward all members of Congress who continue to bribe the public with the public’s money. Although a portion of the electorate will continue to vote based on retaining favors from the government, it is very possible that the Millennial generation will put the death knell to Congress’ profligate ways. The Millennials are the largest generation in American history, and this group will wield the political power for decades to come. They are now funding Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other welfare programs that they know will not exist much longer. Millennials are paying into these programs but will not reap the benefits.
It is only a matter of time before Millennials realize the bleak fiscal future that awaits them. Millennials should demand that Congress address this problem now, and holding their representatives accountable at the voting booth is the only way to force Congress to make principled decisions.
Taxed Enough Already
In order to obtain enough funds to bribe the public, Congress grossly overtaxes the nation’s most productive individuals. In 1913, the 16th Amendment gave Congress the power to institute an income tax. Initially, the public’s money was mostly left in the people’s pockets. The first income tax rate topped out at 7 percent for incomes above $500,000 ($13 million in 2015 dollars).
Over the years, the amount of money siphoned away by Congress has increased exponentially. By 2017, the top marginal income tax rate ballooned to 39.6 percent on incomes of more than $470,700. The U.S. government is estimated to collect more than $3.6 trillion from the public in 2018. Congress has discovered that bribing the public with the public’s money is a costly endeavor.
The federal tax code is a 70,000-page leviathan. Tax credits, deductions, and special-interest loopholes are routinely wielded by Congress in a gigantic quid pro quo scheme.
The simplest solution to this corrupt money-grab is a complete overhaul of the tax code. An efficient and fair tax system that eliminates congressional meddling would be a barrier against public bribery. According to a 2011 Pew Research Survey, 59 percent of Americans say that so much is wrong with the tax system that Congress should completely change it. Voters should demand true and lasting tax reform in the shape of a flat tax or fair tax.
As of this writing, Congress is in the midst of debating a plan for tax reform. The “Tax Cut and Jobs Act” will simplify the tax code by lowering rates and eliminating loopholes and deductions. Although not perfect, it is a step in the right direction.
It’s the Spending, Stupid!
Decades before Tocqueville made his observation about public bribery, Benjamin Franklin clairvoyantly cautioned, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.” In 2017, transfer payments encompassed more than 50 percent of all federal spending.
It’s up to the people to end this bribery racket, and history shows that it can be done. Voters must support ethical leaders who adhere to the principles of the American Founding. Members of Congress who uphold programs that unfairly and unnecessarily redistribute wealth should be ousted from office.
An example of this took place not long ago. In 1994, the Republican Party introduced the Contract with America. Shrinking government, lower taxes, and welfare reform were at the forefront of this document. The 1994 election was a Republican romp. For the first time in forty years, Republicans gained majorities in both houses of Congress. In keeping with their promise, the Republican Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Signed into law in 1996, it placed work requirements and a lifetime limit on welfare benefits. Workforce participation skyrocketed, the number of families receiving cash payments plummeted, and the capacity of Congress to bribe voters with welfare payments was severely curtailed.
The landslide victory of Republicans under the banner of the Contract with America was the epitome of voter backlash to public bribery. Electoral retaliation against all forms of public bribery, including crony capitalism, “too big to fail” bailouts, and outrageous government pensions, should be strong and swift.
To further impede the capability of Congress to engage in public bribery, a series of institutional reforms ought to be established. A constitutional amendment implementing congressional term limits would help deter public bribery. Too many members of Congress bribe voters in their pursuit of continual reelection. Term limits would frustrate this corrupt bargain. A balanced budget amendment would end perpetual deficit spending. Congress would be forced to make choices about how to spend the public’s money, instead of just continually grabbing more.
Members of Congress are unlikely to introduce amendments inhibiting their lust for power. Therefore, it is almost certainly necessary that amendments such as these emanate from state legislatures in the form of an Article V Convention. A convention of the states last took place at a time of extreme peril: the Civil War. If Congress doesn’t act soon, such a convention will be necessary to prevent an economic catastrophe.
Back to Basics
Congressional malfeasance has put the fate of the American Republic at dire risk. The nation is collapsing under the weight of government. Millennials can see that they are getting a bad deal, being coerced to pay into programs from which they will never benefit. It is one thing to support one’s parents, but it is another matter altogether to be forced to support people one has never met. If Millennials respond sensibly to the bad deal they’re being given, they will prove to be the nation’s best hope for real, lasting reforms.
Chris Talgo (CTalgo@heartland.org) works at The Heartland Institute, a pro-liberty, independent think tank headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and is a former U.S. history teacher.