Seeing the ‘rudder effect’ at work in Congress

Published 8:00 am Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ships are large. And while it is true that their course is often impacted by gale force winds and ocean waves, the real entity driving the direction of the ship is actually much smaller in scale.

The rudder, attached to the end of the ship and steered by the pilot, is only a small percentage of the whole ship in terms of its size. Yet, by this little rudder and the power of one person, the entire ship is moved in an intended direction.

People often ask me whether I believe that one vote in Congress can really make a difference. Most of the time, they ask this question with their eyes squinted at me, a skeptical tilt of the head and a pessimistic undertone in their voice.

But their question is legitimate. They see a Congress that is spending away our children’s future and increasing national debt to historical limits. They hear from the Labor Department that virtually no private sector jobs have been created over the past month. They have watched as leadership in Washington spent away our future with little impact even for today.

And while they may see some solutions they respect proposed by a select few in Congress, they find it hard to believe that one person has the power to circumvent the gale force winds that are sending our nation in a perilous direction.

But history tells us otherwise.

In 1995, the Senate was considering a Balanced Budget Amendment. The legislation would have amended the constitution to require the president to submit a balanced budget to Congress and it would have forbidden Congress from spending more money than the federal government received in revenues.

After passing a Republican-led House by a vote of 300-132, the bill was sent to the Senate for a vote. The balanced budget amendment fell one vote short of passage in the Senate by a final vote of 65–35, two-thirds being required for a constitutional amendment.

If either of the 35 “no” votes had cast their votes differently, we would have passed a balanced budget amendment that Congress.

A single vote could have changed the course of our nation’s history. Had the Balanced Budget Amendment passed in 1995 and gone on to be ratified by the states as it was widely expected to do, America’s fiscal landscape would be dramatically different — the world would be dramatically different.

Yet, the Treasury Department recently announced that our national debt will reach $13.6 trillion this year. According to the Secretary of the Treasury, at this rate, the U.S. debt is poised to exceed the value of our nation’s annual economic output by fiscal year 2014.

Over the past two years, we have seen debt levels not seen before in our nation’s history, and our national debt limit has been increased five times. Our debt in the past two years alone has grown $2.4 trillion.

Some would say, and I agree, that our debt should never have even hit the $1 trillion mark. It is unconscionable that it is now approaching nearly $14 trillion.

Despite this reality, the majority leader announced this week that House leadership would not do a budget this year — an unprecedented failure to perform one of Congress’ most fundamental responsibilities. To be sure, controlling our debt and balancing the federal budget would be an enormous challenge even if we had a budget.

This task — at the minimum — would require months of dedication and commitment, and transparency and accountability that go well beyond what Congress has demonstrated over the past several years. But balancing a budget that does not even exist is impossible.

At this critical point in our nation, we cannot afford to operate with no plan, discipline or accountability. We cannot sustain this path.

I am only one. But I am one of only 17 members of Congress to vote against every bailout under the Bush and Obama administrations. I am one who still believes we must constitutionally mandate a balanced budget, which is why I have been a cosponsor of Balance Budget Amendment each Congress.

I have introduced legislation that would drastically cut spending in Washington and tie member salaries to government spending. Some individuals may look at this and say — what does it matter? Leadership will just vote down those bills or pass more bailouts anyway. Other individuals may look even further towards the future of our nation and the actions of the federal government and say that it is useless — that the gale force winds are charting a set course we can no longer control.

But the rudder effect applies to Congress and it applies to citizens of this nation today, just the same as it did in 1995 and just as it did when our nation was founded. Just as the rudder and the pilot control the course of a ship over the long term, so does one vote, or one voice, have the power to direct the course of our nation for 10, 20, or 100s of years to come.

As long as there are those of us who are willing to stand up for the principles our nation was founded upon — principles of liberty, freedom, hard work and responsibility — there will always be an opportunity to change the course of our nation.