Our Current Federal Fiscal Mess – What Would Thomas Paine Do?

John Ramsey  |  May 6, 2024

Reposted with permission. Written and copyrighted by:  John H Ramsey, Founder The Bill of Financial Responsibilities® Project


History has bestowed the title Founding Father and even The Father of the American Revolution on Thomas Paine, an Englishman who only arrived on our shores two years before the Declaration of Independence.

During the Revolutionary War Paine wore our military uniform but did not lead an army. He did not participate in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 nor did he hold high office in the new United States of America.

Yet it was the power and the eloquence of his ideas, expressed for example in a pamphlet he wrote of only 47 pages, entitled Common Sense, that won the hearts and minds of most of the two million residents of the 13 colonies, who would, after facing the wrath of the British Empire, become the first citizens of our new nation.

He did not write it for personal glory or for money. When Common Sense was first published on January 10, 1776, it was signed anonymously "by an Englishman". He donated proceeds from sales of it to the Continental Army.

Elites of the time did not universally embrace it. John Adams called it a "crapulous mass" (before later praising it).

When Paine died on June 8, 1809, only six people attended his funeral.


When Thomas Paine started his work in America, there were no vehicles for mass communications or social media. Yet the power of Paine’s written words moved our people and galvanized their will even when there was no nation yet to move. Sales of Common Sense reached 500,000 copies. One and four colonials would own a copy.

What Thomas Paine knew was that if we were to create and build a new nation, conceived in liberty, it could not just be an enterprise of wealthy Virginia planters and New York financiers. For independence to succeed, leaders would have to persuade the two million American colonials that they would have to be willing to fight and die, to dedicate “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”. We The People had to be all in.

Thomas Paine was the architect of that message and its chief messenger and in so doing earned his place in history as an American Founding Father.

Paine didn't persuade his fellow colonials by sugar coating the problems they faced, or the solutions required. Referring to the tradition of European armies not to fight battles during winter months Paine wrote...

These are the times that try men's souls: The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.

To inspire his soldiers to fight, freeze, and maybe die, General Washington ordered these and other words from Thomas Paine read aloud to them. Thousands of others would hear them read in taverns and at other gatherings.


Nowadays we are inundated with hundreds of channels of streaming television, the Internet and our ubiquitous emails and cell phones bombarding us with messaging about products we must buy, causes and issues we should support, or candidates for whom we should vote. Many topics which were for years taboo or at least not openly discussed are now widely broadcast and debated.


From our beginning, our leaders have been telling us that there would be other issues after our Revolution requiring the American People to be all in again, issues so crucially important to our nation’s continued progress or existence that they must not be left to elected or appointed officials to do as they please or think best, or think best serve them. There are some issues about which We The People have to speak up and tell our elected and appointed representatives what we want them to do, hold them strictly to account, promote them to higher office when they do it, and terminate their services when they do not.

As the Constitutional Convention of 1787 concluded Ben Franklin told an inquiring citizen that ours was to be a Republic “if you can keep it”, a warning there would be times when We The People would have to step up and get involved again.

So later did Abraham Lincoln when he warned us...“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”  And it was written and delivered during the years of our Civil War and subsequent Reconstruction, arguably the most perilous of times.

So later did Ross Perot in 1992 during his campaign for our Presidency when, speaking of America’s involvement in foreign wars, he said: “first you commit the nation, then you commit the troops”. We skipped that first step when undertaking the Vietnam War, and we paid a heavy price in blood and treasure.


We know from our history that when it is important to us We The People know how to kick up a fuss, to press the case for this issue or that, to make one another and our governments uncomfortable, in order to continue our journey to our more perfect Union. While annoying in the short run, that is good news.

And we have important victories to show for it- civil rights, labor rights, women’s suffrage, environmental protection, and the military draft, to name a few.


Our Federal Government’s finances are a dangerous mess and nothing of substance is being done about it. The main reason is that We The People are a long way from all in on required reforms.

The problem is our people and businesses send about $5 trillion to the federal government every year and there are no rules in our Constitution about what Congress may, must, or cannot do with it. None. No instructions or safeguards from the people to our Congress to require wise financial policy.

Our nation’s operating budget today is about one million times larger than when the Constitution was ratified. Instead of our proposing amendments to our Constitution to “scale up”, to better manage so much more of our money, the behavior of Congress deteriorates, the Constitution stays the same, abuses continue, problems get worse.

Both financing and expertise will be needed to help design and deliver a nationwide, sustained education and messaging campaign to get our people in this fight, to persuade all American citizens that:

  • our federal government’s continuous fiscal mismanagement constitutes a serious threat to our country, a threat much worse than just federal spending, annual deficits, and our national debt, bad as they are. For example, according to our federal government will transfer to our grandchildren approximately $160 trillion of unfunded future financial liabilities and nothing is being done about it;
  • amending our U.S. Constitution to include strong, enforceable fiscal requirements and process controls, with consequences for non-compliance, is the only way to alleviate this massive threat;
  • the best version of needed reforms is a package of five Constitutional amendments already drafted and ready to go. Here is the text:;  
  • if We The People do not insist on these or similar versions of these amendments our country is going to suffer serious fiscal consequences that will be painful and costly to all of us and to our country, possibly for a long time in the future, perhaps even permanently.

Members within unwilling Congresses have tried in the past fixing this dangerous federal fiscal mess with new laws to impose fiscal discipline on themselves. New laws don’t help because Congress ignores those laws after passing them when it is inconvenient, and instead does expedient, self-serving things, often creating a patchwork of short term fixes when problems loom, while jealously guarding, but failing to responsibly wield, its powers of the purse.

Unfortunately, our federal courts have been unwilling or unsuccessful in requiring Congress to follow the laws they pass for the rest of us.

Members of Congress regularly propose Constitutional Amendments to balance the federal budget and control spending, only to see them get shelved and ignored.

The emphasis in recent years has been to delegate the responsibility for solutions to celebrity experts, by forming something new and/or special like a Blue Ribbon Commission. The history of those special commissions is not good (see my article entitled WHY I OPPOSE THE PROPOSED FEDERAL FISCAL COMMISSION AND WHY YOU SHOULD TOO. Find it here:

Our Constitution contains language in Article V enabling State legislatures to call a convention to propose amendments, also known as Convention of The States (COS), without the permission or the participation of Congress. This was designed to serve as a vehicle for the sovereign States to express controls over the federal government. Calling such a gathering would require 2/3 of the States to agree. The resulting proposed amendments, as with Congressionally-initiated amendments, would require 3/4 of the States to ratify. Those are both high bars.

Efforts to call a COS have been actively pursued by dedicated citizens groups for over 50 years and continue to the present day. Twice since 1979 the requisite number of States applied to call a COS but Congress failed to call it, in violation of their Article V responsibilities. No court challenges followed. Recently a resolution has been introduced and is pending in both houses of Congress to mandate that Congress accept those applications and call a COS.

Meanwhile, the independence of States to assert controls on Congress has been severely compromised because roughly 35% of funding for State budgets is now financed by the federal government. The very real threat is that State-led Constitutional fiscal controls on Congress might result in a reduction of some or all of this federal funding to the States, thus requiring States to make difficult political decisions about replacing it.


Lots of authors from think tanks and elsewhere describe our federal fiscal problem(s) with scary statistics about what will happen if we don’t change our ways, concluding with recommendations that some actions be taken while being vague as to what those solutions or actions should be.

Some fiscal reform advocates speak about a fiscal responsibility amendment to the Constitution but never describe or summarize what should be in such an amendment, or whether there should be more than one such amendment.

Numerous supporters of a Convention of The States (COS) decline to discuss the specifics of the measures they support, arguing that to do so would limit convention delegates’ abilities to negotiate with one another about what language proposed amendments should contain.

All of these approaches put the cart before the horse. The people are being left out and so far many of us seem OK with that. Trying to build citizen support after solutions have been officially proposed and possibly even adopted is contrary to the lessons of our history, lessons we should have learned from Thomas Paine.


Fixing the federal fiscal mess is the business for We The People, no one else. This is what wise forebears warned us we might have to do. So before we are given new laws or Amendment(s) by a temporary or permanent government institution, let us start the national conversation that many, I suspect most of us are eager to have, that...

  • the depth and breadth of our federal fiscal problems are so serious that if we fail to overcome entrenched individual and institutional interests our nation could face financial ruin;
  • it is only the collective will of We The People that can fix it;
  • we need enforceable, common sense rules in our Constitution about the proper use of our money by our governments and the limitations or rules which our governments must observe to properly use the fiscal powers that we lend them; and
  • we must develop and implement a messaging campaign about specific solutions that will work.

We need a We The People’s Fiscal Commission charged with producing non-partisan and/or bi-partisan solutions, developed independent of both the States and Congress, consisting of clear Constitutional process amendments to control the behavior of Congress, for the benefit of all of us-- young and old, from left, center, and right, of modest and significant means.

A model for the output of such a We The People’s Fiscal Commission is The Bill of Financial Responsibilities®, BOFR for short, that will require adherence to specific Constitutional instructions, with penalties for non-compliance, in Taxation, Spending, Regulations, Social Security and Medicare, Accounting and Independent Auditing. It is four pages long in total. Here is the text: Additional details are spelled out in a Background Paper here:

Recommendations of We The People’s Fiscal Commission must be shared in a sustained and extensive multi-media national messaging campaign to enlist broad active support of citizens so that when the Article V Convention takes place, and/or Congress takes up new amendments, citizens will be all in to advocate these specific, broadly supported solutions to bring our nation back from too many years of fiscal malpractice, while we still can.

Entrenched partisan interests, together with citizen ignorance and apathy are producing a twenty first century tyranny of our own making. But a tyranny just the same.

What better time to recall Mr. Paine’s powerful words-- “Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered.” But conquer we must, because be in no doubt this particular tyranny left unchecked will bring down We The People and our beloved United States of America.

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