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.
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."