Holcomb: Fixing government leadership is critical for the success of the US

INDIANAPOLIS — Call it the "Disaster Paradox." Candidates and commentators in our dominant tribes lately claim that every national election is the last chance to save the United States from all manner of calamities.

Then, once elected, our national leaders behave as though averting disaster — or even just getting basic stuff done — is the furthest thing from their minds. Potential disasters do loom — a ticking debt bomb, an uncontrolled border and rising foreign adversaries certainly qualify — but America won’t overcome any of them for long until Washington learns how to govern again.

There are some helpful classrooms, called states. On the economic front, the contrast is remarkable. In the last six years alone, multiple U.S. Congresses and presidents have added more than $10 trillion to our national debt, which now totals over $31 trillion and equals 115% of our gross domestic product. Every American taxpayer is on the hook for a jaw-dropping $248,000 share of our nation’s unpaid bills. The Highway Trust Fund, Medicare and Social Security will be insolvent within the next 10 years. And inflation is at a 40-year high, made worse by Congress flooding the economy with unearned dollars while jobs go unfilled.

Yet the notion that this federal mess must be unraveled in a sustainable way meets little more than blame-storming and demagoguery in the nation’s capital. This year’s last-minute debt ceiling drama is no exception, having reached an agreement that fails to address the real drivers of our still ever-growing national debt. 

Meanwhile, since I was sworn in as governor of Indiana in 2017, we’ve lowered our corporate income tax, lowered our personal income tax, eliminated our utility services tax, refunded $1.5 billion to taxpayers, lowered our state debt by 31%, gotten seven years ahead on payments to our Teachers Retirement Pension Fund, increased our GDP by over $100 billion, tucked away $3 billion in cash reserves and maintained a AAA state credit rating.

No, I am no genius or saint, am not running for U.S. House, Senate or president, and have never uttered the words, “Only I can fix it.” I am really proud of Indiana, but several other states can point to similar records. The common denominators need to be understood and emulated. Three big ones stand out.

First, have a plan, instead of a bag full of zingers to pull from in a two-, four- or six-year improv session. It’s no coincidence that the political turnabouts we remember in America — think of the New Deal, the Great Society, the Reagan Revolution and the Contract with America — were coherent means to stated ends, whether we agreed with all of their components or not. 

In 2024, any serious candidate for congressional leadership or the presidency needs to display courage and present their detailed plans for restoring America’s finances and strength — causes greater than themselves.

Second, demonstrate a bias to action, instead of looking for who or what to blame or claim in the news cycle. Sure, Washington’s media maelstrom is a powerful distraction, but nothing on my list of Indiana’s accomplishments was easy or uncontroversial either, and none of it happened by accident or surprise. It happened because I, my predecessors and enough people in the state legislature and the private sector never let up.

Third, listen to your opponents and learn instead of demonizing them. Federal elected officials willing to do the right thing and take partial wins seem far outnumbered by attention-seekers content with building seniority while labeling themselves “fighters.” If federal legislation and executive orders undiluted by reasonable compromise were good things, then America would be in fine shape right now. We are not.

Voters get it. Even while the American dream feels more like a dimming sunset to lots of them, people name “government leadership” as the most important problem facing the country, according to the most recent Gallup survey. It ranks ahead of other serious problems because Americans correctly see our governance problems as foundational.

Bad governance is the reason that Washington cannot find a reasonable balance between our obvious needs for hard-working immigrants and a functioning border-control system, allowing instead the worst of all worlds, complete with flows of all the different drugs of the decade (fentanyl today) to meet the American demand, ultimately killing thousands of our friends and neighbors. 

And bad governance is the reason that the U.S. military has not kept up with the technology upgrades and global reach of China, Russia and upstart rivals — emboldening nations to send spy balloons over America, build eavesdropping facilities off our coasts and move away from the dollar currency. Instead, they gloat as debt, drugs and discord make America an ever-easier mark. 

Our history gives Americans plenty of reasons to believe that we can meet these challenges. Individual growing states provide places of certainty, stability, predictability and continuity. For these reasons alone, and countless more, we can escape today’s Disaster Paradox by acknowledging the challenges, asking those who would lead us to show up with the proper prescription in hand to fix The Big Three issues that ail us, and then rewarding results rather than rhetoric at the ballot box.  

Eric J. Holcomb is the 51st governor of Indiana. He can be reached on Twitter at @GovHolcomb and by email here.

Header image: Gov. Eric Holcomb delivers his State of the State address on Jan. 10, 2023, at the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (Credit: Governor's Office)

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