The following op-ed is excerpted and adapted from Sen. Tom Coburn's new book, "The Debt Bomb: A Bold Plan to Stop Washington from Bankrupting America." This is the fourth of a four-part series.
I am known as a senator in Washington, but I will always be a medical doctor first. And if America were one of my patients, I would tell her she had a 100 percent chance of experiencing a major cardiac event -- a potentially fatal heart attack or stroke -- if she failed to take immediate steps to get healthy. In many respects, our recent recession may have been mere chest pains compared with what is coming.
To many Americans, the cures are blindingly obvious: spend less, borrow less, keep taxes low and reform entitlement programs in a way that protects the poor. One reason I released my "Back in Black" deficit reduction plan, which includes $9 trillion in savings, was to show that these changes are possible.
The real problem in Washington is not gridlock or money in politics, nor is it a lack of ethics reform or solutions. It is careerism -- the philosophy of governing to win the next election above all else. For the career politician, the moment to do what is right is never today. It is always a mirage just beyond the horizon of the next election.
Our founders wrote the Constitution to guard against the problem of careerism. They knew the greatest threat to our republic would not be a foreign army or a shadowy terrorist cell in a cave -- but career politicians and their enablers. They knew they couldn't outlaw ambition and insecurity. Instead, they designed the Constitution to limit government and serve as a containment chamber for the human drive for power.
Consider what John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1816: "You ask, how it has happened that all Europe has acted on the principle, 'that Power was Right.' Power always sincerely, conscientiously, believes itself right. Power always thinks it has a great soul, and vast views, beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God service, when it is violating all His laws. Power must never be trusted without a check."
I'm hopeful we can get back on track because that check on power -- We the People -- still works. Amid all the talk about Washington being broken, there is ample evidence members can be rotated -- or fired -- when people simply get engaged. The public did this in 2010 when they fired dozens of career politicians who were no longer effective. If half of the 33 senators up for re-election are defeated each cycle, that would be enough to change the direction of the country.
Our unlikely victory in the earmark battle proves that change is possible. The credit goes to We the People, who said "enough is enough."
If we want to cheat history in 2012 and beyond, we need to go back and look at how our founders cheated history in their day. Their wisdom can guide us to a solution and help us defuse the debt bomb.
The challenge before us is as great as any we have faced, but the solutions are not rocket science. Many are commonsense answers that have been floating around Washington for years. What has been lacking is the courage to act on them. The question for policymakers comes down to this: Will we be career politicians, or will we be statesmen? Will we protect our own jobs, or will we lay down our political lives for freedom?
Our nation has faced great challenges before and emerged stronger and more prosperous. Together, as a nation, I have no doubt we can make the choices that must be made, and preserve the brightest beacon of freedom the world has even known.
Dr. Tom Coburn is a Republican U.S. senator from Oklahoma.