The attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six others in Tucson have transfixed the nation for the past week. But as horrific as those events were, Congress has little choice but to move on. There is little Congress can do about what happened in Tucson -- or ensure something like it won't ever happen again. It is hubris to believe otherwise. What members of Congress owe their fallen colleague -- and the American people -- is to return to the business of legislating. And few periods in recent history offered greater legislative challenges than those facing the 112th Congress.
The nation faces a mountain of debt, estimated at more than $14 trillion, or more than $45,000 for every person living in the United States today. The new Republican majority in the House has promised to cut spending in order to help close the deficit and keep long-term debt from rising. They'll have the chance over the next several weeks as they move to fund government beyond the continuing resolution that expires March 4. Republicans would like to cut $100 billion out of President Obama's 2011 budget, even before the president gets a chance to present his 2012 budget expected sometime in February. But doing so will require deep cuts in existing programs, and Republicans have already taken off the table those related to Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.
But the real problem with out-of-control spending is entitlements. Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid already take up 41 percent of all federal spending, excluding interest on the national debt. And these entitlements cannot help but grow under current policies since the two largest programs are age-related and we are an aging population. An additional 77 million baby boomers will begin turning 65 this year and thus become eligible for benefits. We must make changes in these programs to keep them solvent and stop them from bankrupting the country.
We can't tax our way out of the problem. Already, nearly half of all Americans pay no federal income tax. And while lower-income workers do pay Social Security and Medicare taxes, the lifetime benefits they will receive from these programs, on average, will far exceed their contributions. Even if it were wise economic policy to tax those who do pay taxes at higher rates -- and it isn't -- there simply aren't enough upper-income people to foot the bill.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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