op-ed

A twelve-step plan for Congress

David Martosko Executive Editor
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More than a few observers last month remarked that raising taxes, and giving Congress even more money to spend, is akin to handing a bottle of whiskey to a habitual drunk. They’re probably right — and the comparison just might point in a helpful direction.

Tens of millions of addicts, helpless to reform themselves flying solo, have found sanity through twelve-step programs.

It may be time for the federal government to make the same discovery.

Sound silly? No sillier than letting the feds spend one-quarter of the nation’s gross domestic product with little to show for it.

Aided by an enabling chief executive, Congress is quite literally addicted to spending money — mine and yours. They’ve even appointed a “super committee” with delusions of grandeur bigger than those of the worst “I can stop any time I want” alcoholic.

So why not introduce lawmakers to something that has a track record of sobering up more addicts than it fails?

If you’ve never been exposed to a twelve-step program, it might be helpful to browse the original version. Here’s a modified twelve-step program that Congress should adopt.

Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over spending — that our budgets had become unmanageable.

Like the addict who leaves dented fenders and broken relationships in his wake, our government is both broke and broken. Spending has become its be-all, end-all reason for living. The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem.

Step 2: We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

People in recovery, especially agnostics and the outright anti-religious, often fret over exactly what “a power greater than ourselves” is. It doesn’t have to be a flowing-robed, booming-voiced deity. It can be a room full of people who collectively tend to be smarter than any one of us. (Read James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds if you don’t believe me.)

In our “of the people, by the people, for the people” republic, aren’t we the people supposed to be a “higher” power than our government? Ask a group of tea partiers — or MoveOn.org activists, for that matter — why they do what they do. “Restoring government to sanity” is probably a good summary of what you’ll hear in response.

More to the point, the first step toward admitting a higher power exists is to concede that you, yourself, are not the ultimate authority in the universe. In that sense, what we are looking for is not the opposite of agnosticism. It’s the opposite of hubris.

Step 3: We made a decision to turn our will over to the American public.

Elections have consequences, and even the biggest fundraisers and the prettiest faces have to face the music now and again.

Anti-incumbent fever is not a sickness. It’s a sign that that patient is ridding its body of hostile invaders.

Step 4: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of our agendas and back-room deals.

Every good-government group and D.C. watchdog ought to appreciate the value of those rare, conscientious public servants who are self-aware enough to know the limitations of their profession — those politicians who can see their institutions’ shortcomings with an unjaundiced eye. They tend to recognize from the moment they arrive in Washington that Machiavellian intrigue is far more common than civility.

Recovery experts call Step 4 an opportunity to dispense with resentments — to slough off the self-destructive petty hatreds that live rent-free in our brains.

Congress is full of these. It’s also full of the same character defects that stymie alcoholics who balk at getting sober.

The trick to shedding character defects, they say, is to practice their opposites. Egotism disappears only when you practice humility. The way to avoid laziness is to get up off your butt and do something industrious or entrepreneurial. And the corrupting lust for power has only one cure, found in leaders who learn to serve instead of expecting their constituents’ worship.

Do these prescriptions sound appropriate for any group of 535 elected officials we know?

Step 5: We admitted to the entire country, and to the news media, the exact nature of our wrongs.

Confession is good for the soul. In the case of Congress, an acknowledgement that the entire institution is hopelessly dysfunctional would be a good start.

Unfortunately, it’s usually the president who points this out — which is the equivalent of family members in an intervention reading a laundry list of sins to an unrepentant alcoholic.

Gerald Ford tried it in 1974, quipping that “a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.” Before jumping to the executive branch, Ford was House minority leader. He knew what he was talking about.

And poseurs need not apply. In this scenario, Al Gore’s “Reinventing Government” scheme and Bill Clinton’s famed proclamation that “the era of big government is over” were both the signal flares of an overspending “dry drunk.” (Look it up.)

Steps 6-7: We were entirely ready to have the electorate remove our character defects, and we begged them to do so.

Term limits, anyone?

Steps 8-9: We made a list of all the constituencies we had taken for granted and abused, and made amends to every one of them.

If a split Congress could repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act, this one is certainly capable of repealing Obamacare. And jointly apologizing for it.

Step 10: We continued to reflect on how easy it is to let power go to our heads, and we cleaned our own house without voters shaming us into doing it.

In the Twitter age, the speed with which some errant legislators are shown the door is truly a thing of beauty. Washington’s Massas, Weiners and Wus — and its Ensigns, Lees and Souders too — exited stage left far more quickly than they would have a few generations ago.

But sexual scandals are indicative of just one kind of character defect. Shouldn’t driving our children into debt, or cheapening the value of our currency, be just as scandalous and have similar consequences?

The ancient Athenians chose 50 citizens by lot every month to determine if the generals who ran their foreign affairs were doing a decent job. A no-confidence vote was enough to put a power-drunk leader on trial, and the consequences of conviction in these ancient impeachment proceedings were far more severe than merely losing one’s job. One typical sentence was a 20-year banishment. (The great historian Thucydides was himself exiled in this way.)

No one wants to see a Frank Luntz-style focus group playing dice with Congress every 30 days. But if the House and Senate cleaned up their own side of the street more often, the idea would seem ridiculous instead of reasonable. And Congress’s approval rating might be higher than its current historic low of 12 percent.

Step 11: We sought through part-time residence in Washington to improve our conscious contact with the people, hoping only to serve them well.

Ask a Texan if a part-time legislature that meets for 140 days every other year is a good thing or a bad thing.

If Pennsylvanians, Nevadans and Californians saw their national representatives in their communities week after week, town hall meetings might not bring such sudden, explosive frustrations to the surface. And maybe more members of Congress would keep their job descriptions in mind.

Step 12: Having had a wake-up call to end all wake-up calls, we tried to share the lessons we’ve learned with other democracies, and we kept our noses clean.

This explains itself. But the thought does occur that “nation building,” as we find out too often, has its backfire when our seedlings of democracy are choked to death by weeds we were too dumb to see lurking in the soil.

If we’re going to remain a global leader, making our own domestic leadership pass the smell test is a good dry run.

Admittedly, twelve-step programs don’t produce miracles for everyone. But those who fail to make it work generally aren’t terribly committed to the program.

Winston Churchill is said to have remarked that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities. Those other possibilities have left our nation bankrupt and rudderless, every bit as fiscally suicidal and culturally hopeless as garden-variety addicts.

Maybe a modified twelve-step approach is the “right thing” that Churchill was thinking of. Or at least the next right thing. The way our government behaves, there’s nowhere to go but up.

David is The Daily Caller’s executive editor. Follow him on Twitter