February 25, 1999

February 25, 1999 | Commentary on Political Thought

An Agenda For Congress: Less is More

Now that President Clinton's impeachment trial is over, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott promises a flurry of legislative activity. Lott's colleagues in the House also promise speedy work on "the people's business." But lawmakers should remember: Where you're going is more important than how fast you get there.

America's founders understood that government is limited in what it can achieve but unlimited in its potential to make mischief. Many of today's lawmakers, by contrast, have forgotten that government is supposed to play only a limited role in our day-to-day lives. At a time when federal, state and local government consume more than 40 cents of every dollar earned and meddle in virtually every aspect of our lives, it's time to try a minimalist approach to governing.

Here's a short list of ways the 106th Congress can help restore a government the founders would recognize:

1) Change the budget rules that fuel Washington's spending binge. One reason the federal government has become an unmanageable behemoth is because lawmakers who want to limit spending and return tax overpayments (that's the surplus) to taxpayers encounter a system of budget rules stacked against them. Congress should abolish the senseless "Pay-Go" rules that prohibit tax cuts unless they are "paid for" by cuts in entitlement programs such as Medicare. As long as there's a rule that says tax cuts must be offset with cuts only in the most popular federal programs, government will never shrink.

2) Reform Social Security by cutting taxes. The White House wants Congress to choose between cutting taxes and "saving" Social Security. But with more than $1.5 trillion in projected surpluses over the next 10 years-roughly $22,000 for every family of four-we can do both. How? Reduce Social Security payroll taxes for Americans willing to place that money in private retirement accounts. These private savings accounts become "Social Security Part B," which individuals own and control.

3) Give more Americans control over their health care. Nearly every proposal to fix America's ailing health-care system ignores the real problem: employers and bureaucrats, rather than individuals and families, control health insurance. Most Americans get health insurance through their employer because it's a tax-free benefit. We shouldn't be surprised, though, when HMOs limit access to health care. They're simply trying to control costs, which is what the real owners of our health insurance plans-our employers-want them to do.

Lawmakers should give individuals and families direct control over their health care. They can start by making all health-insurance plans, not just those purchased by employers, tax free. Individuals could then select the plan that best suits their needs.

4) Build a nationwide missile defense system as soon as possible. The United States faces a growing missile threat. It's only a matter of time before Iran and North Korea are able to lob missiles at the United States. Congress should take immediate steps to ensure that America doesn't remain defenseless.

This vital step is endangered by the Clinton administration's devotion to the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which intentionally kept both countries vulnerable to missile attack. But our former treaty partner, the U.S.S.R., no longer exists, which means the ABM treaty is null and void. It makes no sense for the administration to pretend this treaty is still valid when the most likely threat to the United States comes not from Russia and other former Soviet countries, but from North Korea and the Middle East.

Members of Congress, take note: quality beats quantity. The American people won't be impressed if you rush to pass dozens of bills that only tinker at the margins. Do a few things, and do them well.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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