The protocol for when a politician speaks before a crowd of like-minded individuals is to praise the crowd and promise support. On this February Friday, Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., is not following protocol.
He’s been invited to speak about infrastructure needs to the Little Rock Engineers Club – the professionals who design roads and bridges and water systems. However, he tells them he’s not going to talk about infrastructure. Instead, he’s going to repeat the same speech he gives to everybody about the country’s ever-worsening debt problem.
"I find that if I do not use every opportunity to talk about the budget, I am committing malpractice as a politician," he says. "If I talk about anything other than the budget, I’m really wasting everybody’s time, because if we don’t get the budget fixed, your infrastructure needs and priorities are never going to be funded."
His presentation includes 14 slides, down from a high of about 90 as he’s refined it through the years. One pie chart shows that Congress doesn’t even vote on 60 percent of what the government spends. The money is just spent automatically, primarily for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt.
That part of the chart looks like Pac-Man, he says. If nothing is done, it will get bigger and bigger as the baby boomers retire until Pac-Man chomps, and there is no money for the military, none for medical research, and none for the country’s infrastructure needs. At some point, all of those unfunded promises turn us into the mess that Greece already is, and then we’ll have to fix the problem in the midst of chaos and civil unrest.
That’s REALLY not standard protocol. Talking about even touching popular programs is supposed to get a politician voted out of office, which is why many tell voters that, "All is well. There’s nothing to see here."
Griffin, in fact, twice has voted to change Medicare so that the federal government would provide subsidies to future retirees currently under the age of 55 to buy private insurance. The second vote let those future retirees choose that plan or remain in something like the current system.
"When people say, ‘You want to change Medicare as we know it,’ I go, ‘That’s exactly right, because if you don’t, there is no Medicare,’" he tells the engineers.
Later, Griffin tells me that people don’t respond negatively, at least in person, to what he’s saying.
"If you’re given the time to lay it out in a cogent way, people want to hear the truth," he said.
I didn’t agree with everything Griffin said in his speech. He’s for tax reform but doesn’t want the government to collect any more money than it does now, at least for a while. He argues that he’s not willing to send an additional dime to Washington until the federal government has reformed its ways. You send more money to Washington, and it will get spent, he says.
Good points all, but my view is that while it’s true that the nation’s finances primarily are a spending problem, we’re so in debt that we can’t just cut our way out of this.
Plus, we’ll never really reduce spending until we start paying for the government we’re getting. There’s little incentive to change because we don’t experience the consequences of our actions. Debt is an addictive narcotic, and so is mooching. Until we take responsibility for our own government, we’ll keep living off other people’s money – our foreign creditors’ and our kids’ – until we’re Greece.
But we can agree to disagree on that for now, just like others can disagree with the details such as how to fix Medicare and Social Security. What’s most important is that elected officials engage Americans in an honest discussion about the actual, specific problems – instead of pretending it all can be addressed later through some vague "balanced approach," as President Obama keeps saying.
As Griffin says, we’ve got to keep talking about the budget.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org