'Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions,'' Mark Twain said. ''Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.''
Cynicism aside, though, compiling a list of resolutions can be a good exercise -- even for politicians.
This year, the Republican Party lost its conservative soul and, consequently, lost control of both houses of Congress. If the new Democrat majority has resolved to maintain its narrow hold on power, it will need to address three topics. So, in the spirit of the season and in the interest of bipartisanship, here's what lawmakers on both sides of the aisle ought to focus on in 2007:
1. Enforce and improve the new Coburn-Obama open-government bill.
Perhaps the most important law passed in 2006 was the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act.
The law orders the creation of a Google-style search engine that will allow anyone to track more than $1 trillion in federal contracts, grants and earmarks. That's an important step toward open government.
But for it to really work, lawmakers need to follow some commonsense restrictions. For example, they need to leave at least 48 hours between when they finish preparing a spending bill and when it's actually voted on.
All too often, big spending measures are rushed from a conference committee to Congress for an immediate vote. Even lawmakers don't have time to read the bills they're passing, never mind constituents.
Allowing at least two days between the unveiling of a spending bill and a vote on it would allow concerned citizens -- including bloggers (a key reason the bill passed is because Web editors nationwide supported it) -- to comb through the measure and identify any foolish or wasteful spending.
We shouldn't have to wait until after a bill has passed to find out it includes an indoor rainforest or a ''bridge to nowhere.'' Coburn-Obama can prevent those sorts of surprises, if lawmakers don't undermine it.
2. Chart a course for victory in Iraq.
This will be a pivotal year in Iraq. Many ideas are out there -- the recent Iraq Study Group touched off a healthy debate, and in 2007, we can expect to hear more from the White House and the new defense secretary.
But no matter what approach policymakers choose, it simply must lead to victory. A defeat, or even a perceived defeat, in Iraq would weaken U.S. prestige throughout the Middle East, lead to bloody chaos in Iraq, threaten the very existence of Israel and embolden terrorists worldwide.
To win, the United States must force Iraqis to take a larger hand in their own defense, since only Iraqis can truly stabilize Iraq. But we also must make sure they're well-prepared. We should embed American advisers in Iraqi police and military units to speed their training. At the same time, we should make it clear that we won't abandon Iraq's elected government through an immediate withdrawal. In fact, we shouldn't even set a timetable for pulling out until the situation on the ground improves.
3. Deal with our entitlement crisis.
Spending the holidays with my grandchildren is uplifting because, as young Americans, they're growing up in the greatest nation in history. Yet it was also depressing, because Betsy, William and Sara each already has the equivalent of an $187,000 mortgage. That's how much today's youngsters will have to pay just to provide Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to their elders.
This isn't merely unfair; if left unchanged it could spell the end of the American dream. Back in 2005, Democrats helped torpedo President Bush's reasonable Social Security reform plans, which included personal accounts that would have allowed every American to become an investor. This year, lawmakers owe voters an explanation of how they'll enact long-term reforms without increasing our tax burden.
Those three topics should give lawmakers plenty to chew on. Hopefully, they'll be more successful keeping their resolutions than I've been with my annual vow to lose 20 pounds.
And a Happy New Year to all.
First appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times