Mark Twain once said the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. There is wisdom to this thought that not only fits with what we say each day, but bills in Washington that are the product of many words. Seemingly little changes can make for dramatic differences.
There are now only 12 days left in this Congress before the November elections, and what I have observed over the last month is something of a new and disturbing trend - leadership is not requiring "off-sets" or "payment" for legislation they know has great support.
The budgeting process in any prudently run household or business normally entails taking from one area you think is less worthy and adding to what you consider more important ... or just plain pressing. So while individuals move money every day from their "movie budget" to their "mortgage budget," what they don't say is let's just add it to the Visa card!
Fundamentally this is what Congress has done with the last couple of major votes and accordingly I would like to explain why I voted no. After all, when Congress doesn't pay for something by moving it from another area of government it just gets added to our national debt.
The most recent of these votes occurred on Aug. 1 on the Iron Dome missile defense system in Israel. I have always supported Israel's unique tie with our country, and the importance of Israel as the only stable democracy in a tumultuous region cannot be overstated.
This is why I've voted for funding for Iron Dome twice over the short time I have been back in Congress as well as for resolutions condemning Hamas and Hezbollah and sanctions against Iran. I understand how very dire the situation is there as literally life hangs in the balance. But it is for all these reasons that we could have seen a bill that was amendable so that we could have pulled the $225 million from another area of government to support our ally in defending itself.
They chose not to. They knew they had the votes.
We could have handled funding as we had earlier in this Congress by paying for it, just as we did with the border security bill we voted on an hour earlier that night.
A few weeks earlier we saw the Miller-Sanders Veterans bill, and it too left the tab for its cost with the next generation. The bill was an important attempt to deliver on the sacred but tainted promise the federal government has with veterans across this country, and I supported much of what it did. In this case people literally made life decisions on where they would work based on the promise of care after military retirement, and government should live up to its commitments. Once again though, it should do so in a way that does not undermine government's ability to honor its obligations over the long run.
In a $15 billion bill they paid for $5 billion and left the other $10 billion unpaid for and then created an open-ended financial commitment that could well amount to half a trillion dollars.
Finally the highway bill came at us and, to state the obvious, appropriately funding our nation's roads, airports, bridges and transportation corridors is vital to American competitiveness in the 21st century.
But can I also say the non-obvious? How we fund those needs is an equally big part of what will make us competitive.
In this case the bill relied on a budget gimmick called "pension smoothing." It lets companies pay less into their pension funds and thereby hypothetically creates more money for government.
The problem is those companies have to pay it back later, and in the meantime the government is on the hook if they come up short. Can we not fund something as important as infrastructure with less than a budgeting fiction?
The point of these examples is that while we should never make the perfect the enemy of the good, in legislation it's important to not drop the vital tenet of paying for things at a time when our national debt is nearing the point of a mathematical no return.
Using Twain's thinking, "paid" versus "unpaid" is indeed the difference between lightning and lightning bug.
Israel wants an ally for more than the next 10 years, just as roads need funding and veterans expect care for more than just the next 10 years. But our ability to deliver on those promises over the long run will be determined by the way we manage Washington's finances today.
If you would like a fuller explanation of these votes visit my Facebook page. www.facebook.com/RepSanfordSC
Mark Sanford, a Republican, represents South Carolina's 1st District in the U.S. House.