December 27, 2012

National debt: The buck stops here

Scott Soucy says the nation’s debt is everyone’s problem and he has a plan to solve it, $1 at a time.

By ELI SASLOW, The Washington Post

MIDDLETOWN, Del. - Scott Soucy, 46, left the home he purchased with a mortgage and climbed into the limousine he financed with an equity loan. He charged his breakfast to a credit card and then drove across town to work on paying back the one debt he worried about most.

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Scott Soucy sits in Middletown, Del.,waiting to talk to passersby about the national debt.

Washington Post photos by Michael S. Williamson

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At Dewey Beach, Del., Scott Soucy, left, chats with Victor Virdin and Veronica Wilkerson. Helping pay the debt down, he says, is an act of patriotism.

He pulled up to a Starbucks in a quiet shopping center, backing his limousine up to the curb a few minutes after 8 a.m. The weekday rush was well under way in central Delaware, and customers at the register scanned newspaper headlines warning of "Fiscal Disaster" and a "Stymied Congress." Meanwhile, Soucy opened his trunk and assembled his self-described "marketing display" at a table outside, with T-shirts, window decals and a five-foot-tall banner inscribed with his slogan.

"The National Debt: The Solution Lies Here."

As the deadlocked U.S. government flirts with the "fiscal cliff" and the national debt rises beyond $16.2 trillion, Soucy and a handful of other Americans have decided to take actions of their own. A woman in Ohio left $1 million in her will for the Department of Treasury. An elementary school in Houston raised $692 at a bake sale. A man in the Pacific Northwest started a "debt-busting" nonprofit.

Soucy has spent the past two years sending a small portion of his earnings to the Bureau of the Public Debt in Parkersburg, W.Va., writing checks so often it has become "like muscle memory," he says. Now he has begun trying to persuade everyone else to pledge the same donation: $1 from each paycheck for employees, and $1 from each major transaction for businesses. He believes the plan could pay down the debt -- over decades, if perfectly executed.

"It's patriotism when our country needs us, plain and simple," he said.

Already this year, Americans have donated a record amount to pay down the debt, sending the Treasury more than $7 million in personal checks.

All told, it is enough to keep the American economy running on budget for almost three minutes.

WHERE TO POINT FINGERS

As the debt continues to mount, causing instability on Wall Street and revealing the ineffectiveness of Washington, the debate on Capitol Hill revolves around who or what is most responsible: Is it the fault of Democrats or Republicans? Barack Obama or George W. Bush? Skyrocketing entitlement spending or ill-advised tax cuts for the rich?

In Middletown, Soucy has concluded something else.

"You are responsible," he said, pointing to a woman in her late 20s as she hurried from Starbucks to her car with a large latte.

"Excuse me?" she said. "Responsible for what?"

"For the debt," he said, smiling, bouncing his knee in his chair. "It's our country. It's our debt. We are all responsible. We can't just sit around waiting for government to fix this."

"No, thanks," she said, hurrying past.

Soucy waited for the next customer to exit and imagined what the people inside thought of him. "Wacko. Idiot. Dreamer. Childish. Naive," he said. He is a retired Army captain and a business-school graduate raising a family of five in the suburbs. He owns a limousine company, a T-shirt business and hosts a local TV show. "I'm taking a huge reputational risk doing this," he said. "Everybody here knows me, and they think this plan is too simple. Too crazy."

A SENSE OF DUTY

Long before he began paying down the debt, Soucy spent much of his career contributing to it.

He was in the Army for more than a decade, serving in Iraq and later becoming a budget officer in Washington who wrote funding requests for military construction. Every week, he filled out another Department of Defense 1391 form and submitted it to Congress, stuffing zeros into a column that asked for "Proposed Cost." He requested $2 million for a fleet of dump trucks, $20 million for a hospital and $600 million for an electrical grid. The spending never seemed wasteful to him so much as the country's needs seemed endless. He tried to compensate by brainstorming ways to save taxpayer money, winning medals for manufacturing a cheaper shipping device and improving the efficiency of contract bids.

(Continued on page 2)

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