Thomas Jefferson's 'War of All Against All'

Antics between President Obama and Congress on sequestration would make Thomas Jefferson roll over in his grave.

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Thomas Jefferson would likely be very upset over the failure of President Obama and Congress to resolve the sequestration crisis last week. Throughout his political career, Jefferson made numerous statements on his aversion to public debt. One of his most succinct discourses on the topic appeared in his July 12, 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval, a Virginia attorney and author.

Jefferson wrote: "We must not let our rulers load us with perpetual debt. We must make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude…the bellum omnium in omnia", or the war of all against all, "is [the result] of the abusive state of man. And the fore horse of this frightful team is public debt."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Yet the loud gallop of this fore horse hasn't roused politicians to action, and this action is easily achievable. The solution to the government's long-term fiscal health was laid two years ago with the December 2010 "Moment of Truth" recommendation by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (known as the Simpson-Bowles committee), and the March 2011 Government Accountability Office report to Congress, "Opportunities to Reduce Potential Duplication in Government Programs, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue."

The Government Accountability Office describes hundreds of programs spread across multiple agencies that offer low hanging fruit that, if plucked, could save $1.2 trillion. Apples and pears like reorganizing 18 redundant Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs to save $20 billion, eliminating billions in Defense spending on two similar mine-resistant vehicles, collecting $350 billion in tax revenue lost to evasion, and saving $11 billion by restraining the Veteran's Administrations pharmaceutical spending. 

"The Moment of Truth" articulates a comprehensive roadmap to realize fiscal health by 2020—milestones that cap discretionary spending at 2012 levels, revamp the country's broken tax code, reform federal healthcare services, and reduce defense and Social Security spending.

[See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

However, partisanship and ideology led decision-makers to ignore these recommendations before the ink was dry. In March 2011, when "The Moment of Truth," was debated in Congress, it attracted only 38 votes. Rep. Paul Ryan, who sat on the committee, spoke against it. Nancy Pelosi objected because it argued for lower corporate tax rates, and the president left it in the inbox for political reasons. There has been much talk about resurrecting the Simpson-Bowles plan. Many representatives have gone on record arguing for it, but given the dysfunction in Washington, it's not likely to rise from the ashes.

The only way to compel action at this point is with public pressure, the last line of defense from looming "bellum omnium in omnia." Constituents must bombard the Beltway with phone calls, faxes, and E-mails demanding that the president and Congress "fix it." However, that will require the public to do something that it hasn't yet done, engage the problem, understand it, ask questions, and consider the consequences of allowing the sequesters to continue: a 9 percent unemployment rate and a recession. If that isn't enough of a stimulus, the most we can probably expect is for Thomas Jefferson to roll over in his grave. 

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