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.
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 underway 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.
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 now, pointing to a woman in her late 20s, as she hurried from Starbucks to her car with a large latte. She spun around and looked at his display.
"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."
For the next two hours, he sat at his table, repeated the details of his plan and then listened to their skepticism.
A middle-aged woman, peppermint latte: "Why pay at all? Can't we just forgive our debt like we forgive everybody else's?"
A retired airline pilot, coffee black: "You're feeding a dragon. As admirable as it seems, you're asking me to send more money to a government I don't trust."
The next person out the door was a manager from Starbucks. She had read the company rule book, she said, and it forbade solicitation. She told Soucy he needed to leave.
"Okay," Soucy said. "We can take the message somewhere else."
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. "Dizzy money," he called it. 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.
He had always adhered to a code of responsible citizenship, enlisting in the Navy after graduation from high school in New York and serving for six years before later joining the Army. He gutted out six months in Iraq with a bad back, swallowing painkillers in secret so nobody would know he was hurting. Then he retired voluntarily earlier than he had planned, because it was more forthright than shirking the Army's annual fitness test.
In the years since, he had applied the same tenets of duty and accountability to civilian life. His family gave 10 percent of its income to charity, exercised daily and paid debts on time. As a father, he considered it his "responsibility to give the country a good product," he said, so each of his three children — ages 18, 16 and 13 — sat down for annual contract negotiations with their parents. They promised good grades, community service or soccer goals in exchange for iPads and computers.
"I want them to learn that life is based on concrete cause and effect," he said. "You do something, and you get paid. You owe something, and you pay it."
It was one reason why the national debt had always bothered him: Here was a place that defied the rule — a place where debt went only in one direction and seemingly no one was held accountable.
"Maybe I'm accountable," Soucy thought while watching a story on TV about the debt early in 2011, as it surpassed $14 trillion. He sat down with paper and a pen to formulate a plan. Every adult, from millionaires to welfare recipients, would donate $1 per paycheck — or about $20 a year. "We're already talking billions right there," he said. Big businesses would donate $1 from each transaction over $10, an act of selflessness that would appeal to customers. "Suddenly we're in the trillions," he said. "Are you kidding me? You can't afford to lose a dollar? It's that easy."
He presented the plan at a Dunkin' Donuts to the mayor of Middletown, who directed him to a state senator, who published Soucy's idea on a Web site. Soucy sent messages to Donald Trump, Fox News and Vice President Biden. When none responded, he started buying tables at business banquets and chatting up chief executives. He advertised on local cable. He personally sent in more than $300 to the debt. He approached strangers walking on the beach and politicians hosting campaign fundraisers.
"The debt is the biggest problem we have," he told them. "Back in the day, people gave their lives to save this country. I'm just asking you to give a check."
Another day, another $4 billion added to the national debt, and another statement of "no progress" from leaders in Congress.
Soucy left his house and drove to the post office, where the employee at the door greeted him by name. The past two months had been the hardest since Soucy opened the limousine business, with only six transactions in all of October. His eldest daughter was applying to private colleges such as Cornell and Stanford. He had a mortgage and business loans to pay off in the coming weeks.
He addressed his envelope to the Bureau of Public Debt in Parkersburg, W.Va., a town of 33,000 on the Ohio River where 2,000 people are now employed to manage the debt. The office discourages citizens from sending coins because they cost too much to process. It auctions off donated items such as paintings and TVs and then funnels all gifts into a general fund, which is used to pay down the country's maturing securities.
When people such as Soucy call to request the mailing address, a representative sometimes reminds them that: "You can't get your money back" and "You know, each American would have to pay about $52,000 to get us even" and "This is a little like picking one tiny grain of sand off the beach."
But, for Soucy, it was also an act of muscle memory — less about the principal of the debt than the principle of the habit — so he stepped up to the post office counter.
"Somebody has to do something," he said, and so he handed over an envelope with a check, for $32.