Congress Beats Enron at Own Game

"…[I]t is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy." (I Cor. 4:2) (NASB)

No doubt Ken Lay is turning over in his grave. And Bernie Ebbers, Jeff Skilling and Denis Koslowski must be steaming. All were corporate magnates tripped up by accounting scandals. All were convicted of crimes. Most were sentenced to prison (Lay died before sentencing). They cooked the books along with their own goose. They violated the law and were required to pay the price. Therefore, it must gall them to learn that the people who wrote the laws that brought about their downfall are guilty of the same kind of duplicity.

Recently, Dennis Cauchon, writing in USA Today, revealed, "The federal government keeps two sets of books." One set that shows a $318 billion deficit is used when reporting on the country’s financial condition to the public. However, a second set of books reveals a far grimmer picture: the federal government is actually running a $760 billion deficit.

What’s going on? Accounting is a tricky business, and there are many ways to present the numbers—some more forthright than others. Simply leave out a set of expenses and you get an entirely new picture. Lawmakers realize the importance of honesty in accounting, so they have established clear accounting guidelines for others to follow. However, they, themselves, go by a much more relaxed standard. If a businessman were to go by the standards lawmakers apply to themselves, he would wind up in jail. According to USA Today, the guidelines Congress tailor-made for itself leaves out certain operating costs, such as "the growing expense of retirement benefits for civil servants and military personnel." In other words, the "official" numbers made available to the public simply ignore a large chunk of the government’s future obligations, making the government’s financial condition appear rosier than it really is.

Lawmakers know that the official budget report is an inaccurate (some would say dishonest) way of presenting the numbers, so the government keeps a second set of books—maintained by the Treasury Department—which take into account the retirement benefits owed to civil servants and military personnel. When those obligations are factored in, the deficit balloons to $760 billion. When obligations for Social Security and Medicare are included, the deficit swells to $3.5 trillion! Congress and the Government Accountability Office oppose the inclusion of these obligations in the official books typically made available to the public because, they maintain, Congress can reduce social insurance benefits in the future (and when did they last do that?).

Deluded by its own deceit, the Republican-controlled Congress, which once advocated fiscal restraint, is spending the taxpayers’ money with reckless abandon. Meanwhile, the true financial condition of the Republic is being concealed from the people through an elaborate array of smoke and mirrors. It’s enough to make a white-collar criminal turn green with envy, or red with rage.

What members of Congress seem to have forgotten is that they are spending other people’s money rather than their own. The federal legislature has lost sight of the fact that they are mere "stewards", not owners, of that which is passing through their hands. A steward is one who has been placed in charge of managing that which belongs to another. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus recounts the parable of a steward who was accused of wasting his master’s possessions and required to account for his management. He concludes the story by explaining to his disciples that one’s faithfulness in carrying out his stewardship responsibilities affects his future in the here and now and in the hereafter: "…if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? And if you are not faithful with other people’s money, why should you be entrusted with money of your own?" (Luke 16:11-12) (TLB).

Members of Congress would do well to reflect on the answers to those questions—as would we all.

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