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.
The only practical way to avert the looming crisis is to reduce or delay benefits, if not for everyone, at least for some beneficiaries. But politicians are wary of taking on seniors even though, in practical terms, any changes would likely affect people who aren't yet close to retirement age. And that's the problem with virtually every government program on the books. Every program has its constituency.
If Democrats and Republicans are serious about working together for the good of the country, they can begin by putting together a bipartisan group of legislators whose task it will be to come up with serious cuts in discretionary spending and entitlement reform. But doing so will mean both parties will have to get beyond the usual blame game. Democrats will have to quit pretending that Republicans want to punish poor people and the elderly, and Republicans will have to recognize that no program or agency -- not even the Defense Department, the Veterans administration, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- should be spared from achieving savings.
If spending cuts are voted on separately, we can expect the same gamesmanship by interest groups that always carries the day. The AARP will scream about even minor adjustments to programs for seniors; unions will decry cutbacks in unemployment benefits or reductions in job training money; the education lobby will bemoan the failure to continually expand federal funding for education programs from early childhood through graduate school; defense contractors will claim every new weapons program is vital to national security.
The only way forward is for congressional leaders to put together an agreed-to package of cuts and entitlement reforms that will be voted on as a unit. This will require real cooperation -- and leadership -- not just feel-good rhetoric about restoring civility.
The best tribute her colleagues could give Rep. Gabrielle Giffords -- a Democrat who has often crossed party lines to vote in the best interests of all the people -- would be to pass a bipartisan budget that gets America back on the path to fiscal responsibility.
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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