"But George, I'm just a legislator!" was the reaction I got from a fellow Member of Congress just after I told him we needed to change our culture if we were ever going to win conservative victories in Congress. I held this view when I went to Washington and was more convinced it was true when I left sixteen years later.
I entered Congress in 1994 with the Republican Freshman Class. It was the first time Republicans held the majority in the House of Representatives in nearly 40 years. I became President of the Freshman Class and, in 1998 with a great deal of blood, sweat and tears we balanced the budget for the first time in decades. In early 1999, there was a celebratory atmosphere at the famous Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, where Republicans held their annual retreat and planned the next session of Congress. At that time the national debt was $5.2T (65% of GDP). I spoke to my fellow Republicans about how important it was to start reducing the national debt now that we had finally balanced a budget. Suddenly all you could hear were crickets. I was met with blank stares, mostly from powerful appropriators anxious to start a spending spree after the restraining effort of balancing the budget. They won the debate and the spending resumed. As of 2020 the budget deficit is now $3.1T and the national debt is $27.7T (129% of GDP).
I continued to look for ways to improve our culture, reverse government spending and welfare state influence. In 2002, again at the Greenbrier, I spoke to President Bush and Republican House and Senate Members, about a Joint House-Senate Resolution I co-sponsored with Harold Ford, Jr. in the House along with senators Santorum and Lieberman in the Senate. Ford was a Democratic member from Tennessee and an African-American, Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, a conservative Republican, and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a prominent Democrat. The sponsors of the resolution covered all parts of the political spectrum.
The premise of the resolution was simple: if the national charitable giving rate was increased just one percent, from its historical rate of 1.5% to 2% of annual gross income, to 3%, it would provide more than $100B every year to churches, foundations and non-profit organizations all across America. Since charity is far more effective at reforming lives, we could justify reducing welfare spending, pay down the federal debt and reduce taxes.
My idea left an impression, but the President and the Republican Congress were still clinging to the notion that Republicans, while in the majority, were going to solve the nation’s social problems the old fashioned way, from inside the Beltway.
My resolution didn't have a strong enough impact on the President, but it did with the Chaplain of the US House of Representatives Daniel Coughlin, who was in attendance and heard my presentation to the President. At a meeting later in the Chaplain’s office in the United States Capitol, he and I discussed strategies for moving the issue forward.
He agreed to take the resolution to the National Council of Catholic Bishops to get support. The outcome came as a bit of a shock. The Council of Bishops rejected the idea outright because of one small statement in the non-binding Resolution, “Whereas a one percent increase in charitable giving may reduce the federal deficit . . .” The federal government funds forty percent of Catholic Charities and the Council of Bishops did not want to risk their government funding, even for a dramatic increase in charity.
Not long after retiring from Congress in 2010, I asked for a meeting with The Heritage Foundation in Washington DC to introduce Julie Bumgardner. Heritage is considered by many to be the vanguard "think tank" of American. Their mission is to build "an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish" and, according to their website, they rank number one over more than 8,000 think tanks in the world for their impact on public policy.
Julie Bumgardner is the CEO of First Things First in Chattanooga TN, a private foundation that provides resources to guide people in their relationships so they can live better lives. With their help, Chattanooga was the first community in the nation to reduce fatherlessness, unwed pregnancy and divorce by 30% within ten years without government assistance. In order to achieve these goals, eighty percent (80%) of the people of Chattanooga had to be aware of them.
The deteriorating relationship between child and their parents is the common denominator of almost every costly social problem in America. Can you imagine the impact Julie's program could have if it were established in every community across the country?! I wanted The Heritage Foundation to help me win the support of Congress and the Presidency and spread the word of Julie's program to their communities and help get the projects going.
Heritage pulled together an impressive group of like-minded associations, non profits and staff from Member offices and Committees from the House and Senate for the luncheon presentation. Julie made a great presentation and her dynamic style won over the crowd. They were determined to act.
Unfortunately, it quickly turned into a discussion of federal funding and appropriations and government programming. I put on the brakes. "All we need is the advocacy, the bully pulpit, of Heritage, the President and Congress to build awareness of this private sector initiative. If successful, we could improve our culture, eliminate federal spending and end many ineffective welfare programs." The meeting was pretty much over when I was told by The Heritage Foundation that I "was fifty years too late with that idea." So much for preserving America's heritage. Unfortunately, Julie's program never made it beyond Chattanooga.
Strengthening the bond between child and parent is a powerful lever to improve our society, but the powers in Washington DC will not allow private sector programs to flourish and reduce dependency so that government can recede into the background.
Without a shared sense of "the bigger picture" serving as a guide, our leaders, liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrats are just legislators with no vision. They flop back and forth between majority and minority rule, falling prey to a socialism that is beginning to look like a state religion.