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Richard H. Carmona, M.D. Headshot

The Need for American Solutions in a Dysfunctional Partisan Battlefield

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After Congress' dismal failure to agree on budget and health issues, many parts of the federal government have been shut down for almost two weeks. Reflecting on this abominable situation, I cannot help but think of the law passed by Congress over a decade ago that holds corporate boards accountable. The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a U.S. federal law that applies to U.S. boards, management and public accounting firms.

The law was passed as a reaction to a number of major scandals and lack of accountability that cost investors billions of dollars when the share prices of affected companies collapsed, and shook public confidence in our markets.

Since 2002, Sarbanes-Oxley has held corporate boards responsible for the oversight of the companies they have promised to serve, and failure to comply with the law can lead to financial and criminal penalties for the individual board member and the company.

It appears we need an equivalent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act for Congress.

The U.S. Congress is the equivalent of our corporate board for the United States of America, and we the people are the shareholders.

As a member of corporate boards that must adhere to the regulations of Sarbanes-Oxley, if I conducted myself by the standards that the U.S. Congress is presently conducting itself in regards to its sworn duties, I would certainly be relieved of my board duties, and could even face civil or criminal charges. As a member of a board, I am sworn to put the people I work for first -- by assuming the role of board member, I promise to treat the shareholders' interests as more important than my own, every time. That means that I cannot storm out of a meeting just because I don't like what someone is saying.

The corporate boards I serve on consist of professionals of all faiths, ethnicities, political affiliations and associations. However, these relationships are left at the door, as we understand that our value proposition is to build our companies and bring value to our shareholders. On many issues we initially disagree on a path forward, but unlike our elected officials who are seeking Republican or Democratic solutions and in doing so to the extreme are jeopardizing our country, our corporate boards must seek American solutions that bring value to our shareholders in all that we do.

Furthermore, as a health professional, I've always had rules that govern my accountability to my patients and how I relate to them. If I ever conducted myself as a health care professional in the manner which our elected officials are currently conducting themselves, I could lose my license to practice and be held criminally negligent.

As a university professor, I am required to follow regulations and policies that are in place to protect the institution and the students we are duty-bound to educate. If I depart from these policies, I could be disciplined and or lose my job.

As a young U.S. Army Special Forces medic and weapons specialist and decades later as Surgeon General of the United States and an admiral of the United States Public Health Service, I had responsibilities to my troops, to the President, and to the public I served. The same is true as a law enforcement officer. In all of these jobs, if I disagreed with my commander or another member of my unit, it was my responsibility to find a solution through open, honest, clear, and direct communication. Unlike Congress, I could not and would not just shrug my shoulders and declare a "stalemate" -- because lives are on the line.

To our elected officials, I say the following: Lives are now on the line because of your dereliction of duty. You pass laws that govern the behavior of hundreds of millions of people and businesses, but you cannot manage to follow through on even the most basic aspect of your jobs, which is to keep the federal government open for business. Because of your unwillingness to actually address the health, safety, and security of our nation, people will become sick; people will be laid off from their jobs; people will not be able to feed their children; and veterans, soldiers, and their families will suffer.

In no other job or profession do responsible men and women have the luxury of walking away from the problem. We are held accountable by the laws that you promulgate. From Sarbanes-Oxley, to the rules of military conduct, to the basics that our parents and teachers taught us as children, you are failing at every turn. You have failed to perform the legally proscribed duties of your job and outrageous as it may sound, you are still paid and receive all your benefits!

As the world looks at the greatest economy on earth, the one remaining super-power, and now a political circus, what can they think of the United States now?

The concept of democracy -- that we export globally -- is on the precipice of not standing up to the claims that have held for more than two centuries.

As a soldier, I can tell you that to the world, it appears that our U.S. elected officials are in a circular firing squad.

There is no doubt that there will be casualties and irreparable harms caused by your dereliction of duty. You have somehow forgotten the promise of selfless service to our fellow citizens and you are acting selfishly on a most global stage, seemingly without remorse or even recognition of the colossal pain you are inflicting or your shareholders, us citizens.

I remind my fellow citizens that we have the clout to take away power from those whom we elect but who fail to responsibly represent us. The question before us is whether Congress will choose to regain civility for our democracy, or just continue this self-serving, citizen-harming partisan charade which continues to undermine our global image. If ego and ideology triumph over service and duty, we the people should take back the power as soon as possible. We must elect people who understand the value and privilege of selfless service and the need for American solutions to our challenges.