Most conservatives are well aware that the United States is in a deep hole financially speaking. Our national debt is around $20 trillion, our annual budget deficit is $440 billion, and the government seems all too ready to continue spending money it doesn’t have for as far into the foreseeable future as anyone is able to imagine. Of course, one day, there will be hell to pay if things keep going the way they’ve been going for the last two decades and longer.
Most legislators in Washington (including the president) are well aware of these problems, but for the most part, they go unmentioned; they’re the elephant in the room because politicians want to be reelected, and no one wants to hear that their favorite government programs, benefits and subsidies are going to be cut in order to pay money back that’s already been spent.
For the last 20 years (longer, if you skip over the Internet boom years, which allowed us to temporarily balance the budget), our representatives in Washington have been kicking the can down the road, but the road can only extend so far before it becomes obvious to our creditors that we have no intention of turning things around and getting back on track from a financial perspective. When the interest on our debt becomes so high that we no longer have any hope of paying the principal or when our creditors (such as China) stop buying our Treasury bonds, that’s when the brown stuff starts to hit the fan. At that point, all bets will be off, and the future of the nation will be in serious doubt.
As Republican former Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma believes, we need to do something about this runaway train in Washington, and fast. Not only are politicians and government bureaucrats spending money at an untenable clip, the federal government now has more say over people’s lives than ever before — both from a fiscal and a legislative perspective.
Coburn has written a new book, entitled Smashing the D.C. Monopoly: Using Article Five to Restore Freedom and Stop Runaway Government. By ‘Article Five,’ he means the U.S. Constitution, in which the fifth article says that when people in enough states are convinced that the federal government needs to be reformed, a convention can be called to discuss a narrow set of defined issues. And that’s just what Coburn wants to organize, via a website called ConventionofStates.com.
“The assumption of a monopoly usually is, when they have such great power, there’s no consideration given for anybody else’s thought,” he observed. “So ask yourself the questions, ‘How well is Washington working today? How well is Congress working today?’ They’re not, and the cost to bear them is tremendous,” says Coburn matter-of-factly.
“You know, this monopoly is going to put our kids — I’m talking about millennials, the largest demographic in our country — the average millennial is on the hook right now for $1.7 million that will have to be paid back in the next 50 years. What I’m talking about is the 50-year unfunded liabilities of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, disability, military pensions, federal government pensions; it’s $144 trillion… If you think about that for a minute, that’s the thing monopolies do: they spend money with impunity because they’re not going to be the ones that have to pay it back.”
Coburn continues, “In New York State, Oklahoma, Kansas and every other state, if you look at the money raised in-state, an unelected federal bureaucrat tells you how to spend 60 percent of it — how you MUST spend 60 percent of it and what the rules are.”
For Coburn, who spent 10 years in the Senate and six in the House of Representatives, there’s only one solution. “The way to smash this republic is by using Article Five to re-establish and return the Constitution to the relationship that it was intended to be. What that means is a limited federal government, with decisions made at state houses and local communities and the federal government doing what it was supposed to do — the limited role that it’s supposed to have.”
According to Coburn, the federal problems stem from a lack of will in Washington. “Most politicians want to get re-elected. They want to be in Washington. So if you start making hard decisions, which is going to cause sacrifice for all of us, they’re afraid they won’t get re-elected… The real deficit in Washington is trust, and if you look at Pew’s latest research, not many people trust Washington. Well, the legitimacy of the government depends on trust. The legitimacy of your elected representatives means you trust them to make the hard decisions — even some that are painful to you, if, in fact, the long-term health of our country depends on it.”
But Coburn believes our politicians have a conflict of interest. “They do what’s in the best interests of their political career. I saw it in and out for the 16 years I was there — six years as a congressman and then ten years as a senator. The conflict of interest means we don’t have any statesmen, or very few.”
As Coburn sees it, the Constitution provides a simple answer. “You’ve got a way to fix Washington, and it’s a way our Founders gave us. You don’t have to be frustrated anymore. What you have to do is come join the millions of us that are going to use this tool to restore the Constitution… The first portion of Article Five was actually about us — giving us a way to restore relationships and balance and power. Then later came allowing that the Constitution could be amended by Congress.”
Coburn explains the process. “What they said in Article Five is that if two-thirds of the states call for an identical consideration in identical areas, that the Congress has to call a convention of the states. The convention of the states is a calling of commissioners from each state to consider whatever that call was in the application made by two-thirds of the states. And now, that’s 34 states. What happens is when you get to 34 states, Congress has to call it. A convention is held, and each state sends its delegate, with each state receiving one vote on any matter that is put up there.”
Of course, Coburn isn’t the first person to call for such a convention. Prior efforts have been made on and off for the last several decades. But each time voters seem to give it any serious consideration, the fear has been that it will open up a can of worms and allow radicals to tinker with what the Founding Fathers created. But Coburn has an answer for that too. “The only things that can be discussed are within the application for the convention. The reason that will hold is, number one, [representatives] will use the same parliamentary rules that they use in their state houses, in terms of rules of operating this convention. The second thing is, the federal government is never going to forward something outside of that application to the states for approval because they’ll get blocked, and the courts will support that block if that wasn’t part of the application.”
Once decisions are made at such a convention, they’re sent back to the states for ratification in the form of Constitutional Amendments. “Whatever comes out of [a convention] are simply recommendations back to the states that here are the things we think ought to change, and then 38 states have to approve that within seven years. If they do, we have changes… Why isn’t there a balanced budget amendment? Why aren’t we giving backbone to the members of Congress and saying you have to do this? And then they can come home and say, ‘I had to; we have a balanced budget amendment with generally accepted accounting principles.'”
Coburn desires to not only reign in Washington’s spending, but to limit Washington’s power to control spending at a local level. “There should be limits to the scope and jurisdiction of the federal government. And term limits on not just [politicians who are] elected, but also appointed federal officials… In other words, we get to decide, and we haven’t been deciding. Washington’s been telling us what to do. We should be the ones telling Washington what to do. While they’ve been telling us what to do, they’ve racked up poverty for our kids and dropped us to seventeenth in the world in terms of economic freedom.”
Coburn has been spending time putting together just such an effort to call for such a convention via the previously mentioned website. “[This mess] is fixable, and the great smile that comes on your face is, you can actually do something about it. You can join this group of millions of people at ConventionOfStates.com and become one of the people that are supporting this movement to rebalance the federal government, rebalance the branches of the federal government, and rebalance the relationship with the states… I think we’ll get to 34 states. I don’t doubt that. I don’t think it has to do with red and blue [states]; it has to do with us deciding versus government deciding.”
Coburn believes that even liberals and progressives would be in favor of returning decision-making to a local level instead of a federal one. “There’s a Fourth Estate in Washington that decides everything, and none of them have ever been elected to any job. It’s called the bureaucracy. I don’t think it’s red/blue; I don’t think it’s conservative/liberal. If you want to restore freedom to America, whether you’re on the left or the right, what you want to do is rebalance the relationship between the states and the federal government and rebalance the relationship between the federal government’s branches. I don’t see that as a problem. Will people say, ‘We don’t think you ought to have a balanced budget?’ Who doesn’t think that? What adult doesn’t think — I’m talking true adult — doesn’t think you shouldn’t steal from your kids? That’s not controversial.”
Coburn provided an example of where he believes this process could be applied. “Just talk about what’s going on in Washington today. Nobody’s talking about the real things that will fix health care… Americans pay 33 percent too much for everything they pay for in health care. Everything. If you had true price discovery, where you could actually find out what things cost in your community and find out what the outcomes were, then what you would see is people shopping their health care. But you can’t find out what things cost ahead of time.”
Like President Trump, Coburn believes competition in health care is the answer. “The real answer to health care is to mandate that there be price transparency across the United States and then let markets work — because they will. We’ll see a marked reduction within two years, if we have price transparency, that will cut the cost of health care in this country a third,” he predicted.
“Remember that the big hospitals that are vertically and horizontally integrated are nothing but monopolies. If you go to a hospital parking lot at two o’clock in the morning — I’m talking an employee parking lot — and you go to that same parking lot at two o’clock in the afternoon, you’ll see five times as many cars. What that tells you is, they’re 20 to 30 percent inefficient because almost everything else is operating in the hospital — maybe not at the same level, but not five times less in the middle of the night.”
Coburn also sees the insurance companies as part of the problem. “You have these fat insurance companies, fat in both nonprofit and profitable hospitals that aren’t driven to efficiency. What they need is competition.” But once again, the problem is willpower in Washington. “There’s too many monied interests in Washington lobbying against real competition, real price transparency, and real quality transparency.”
Currently, Coburn’s coalition counts 12 states supporting it, and Coburn hopes to add eight to ten more in the next year or so.
Coburn points to the example of the convention which drafted the Constitution in the first place. “The Annapolis convention of states is what called the [original] Constitutional Convention. This has been going on in our country for years. Lots of compacts out West were conventions of states. The point is, if you become knowledgeable in it, you’ll see this is the answer that our Founders gave us for fixing our country and restoring what is rightfully ours, which is our liberty… It’s not about being a political junkie, and it’s not about being hooked into this 24/7 news cycle. It’s about how do you get to live your life,” Coburn says.
“Most Americans say, ‘Just leave me alone. Let me do my thing.’ That’s getting harder and harder to do. If you want to have a way to make sure you can do your thing in the future, then you’ll become involved in this.”