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OP ED: Turning the page on business as usual in Washington

Washington, April 14, 2011

Turning the page on business as usual in Washington
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Clarendon)

This week begins a new page.

So far this year, Congress has been working primarily on last year's business. In 2010, for the first time in nearly 40 years, the House never even voted on a budget and Congress did not pass any of the 12 appropriations bills that fund government. The back-and-forth between the Republican House on one side and President Obama and the Democratic Majority in the Senate on the other has been over whether to reduce spending from 2010, how much, and where. Now, six months into the fiscal year, that has been decided, and this week the House turns to the 2012 budget and much bigger stakes.

The budget voted by the House this week is a drastic departure from spending-as-usual in Washington. It holds down taxes and reduces overall spending to a level that the economy — and the American workers — can sustain. At the same time, it provides a blueprint for reforming government programs in a way that not only saves money but also makes them more effective.

The biggest drivers of our fiscal problems are the mandatory spending programs, also known as entitlements. Together with interest on the debt, they comprise well over half of the budget. In fact, if we were to eliminate all spending not in mandatory programs — that means cutting out all money for defense, foreign aid, and the programs we just spent four months debating with President Obama — the government would still have a deficit of several hundred billion dollars. In other words, all of the tax revenue coming into the federal government today is not enough to pay for the entitlements we have, and the problem will get worse.

So what will the House budget proposal do? First, it makes no changes in Social Security or Medicare for those age 55 or older — none at all. We should approach these discussions focusing on the next generation, seeking a system that is sustainable, efficient, and compassionate.

Under this proposal, younger folks would choose among several Medicare plans when they reach 65, much like beneficiaries do today in Medicare Part D prescription drug coverage. On Social Security, the budget requires the President to work with the Social Security Trustees to submit a plan to Congress that restores balance in the Social Security Trust Fund, recognizing that both parties and both branches must work together to strengthen this important program.

There would be significant reforms in programs that comprise the social safety net for the less fortunate. Medicaid, which provides health care for low-income Americans, would be sent to the states in a block grant without all of the federal regulations that prevent each state from delivering health care in the way that makes sense for its people. States would also have more flexibility with food stamps and public housing, with some common sense requirements, such as time limits and work requirements, which were so successful in the welfare reform effort of several years ago. Governors have been asking for stable funding and fewer strings. This budget delivers that.

While providing small increases for the first job of the federal government, defense, the budget takes nondefense discretionary spending back to 2008 levels. Doing so will require tough choices and dropping some lower priority programs. But we will not restore fiscal sanity to the government and to the country without making exactly those kinds of choices.

Finally, the budget blueprint would reform the tax code, lowering the top rate for individuals and corporations to 25% and eliminating many of the loopholes, deductions, and exemptions which contribute to the indecipherable monster of a tax code with which taxpayers are wrestling this week.

Reforming the tax code and restraining spending are essential for economic growth. And that touches on the bottom line for this or any other budget. If we do not take significant action, we may be the first generation of Americans that fails to leave the country in better shape than we found it. On the other hand, if we do take action, the economy can begin to grow again, jobs will be created, and living standards will improve.

It will not be easy, and all of us will have to be part of the solution. But it is time for us to face the truth straight on and choose what will be written on the new page of American history that begins this week.

Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Clarendon, represents the 13th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He serves as the Vice Chairman of the Armed Services Committee and as a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. 

****As appeared in the Times Record News on 4-14-11 and the Amarillo Globe-News 04/18/11