January 17, 2003

January 17, 2003 | Commentary on Political Thought

What's Your Agenda

It's easy to complain.

Especially when it comes to our elected officials in Washington. Some of us do it so often that we toss the buzz-phrases around with the ease of a carnival barker: Those stuffed shirts do nothing but squabble. The only thing they're interested in is re-election. All they want is more of my money. And so on.

Fair enough. A grumbling electorate is an American tradition. And heaven knows the criticism is frequently deserved. But once we've indulged in this time-honored rite, then what? End of story?

Not here at The Heritage Foundation. We're determined to see that our elected officials get some constructive advice. After all, they need all the help they can get, given the range of issues confronting them, from national security (North Korea, Iraq, al Qaeda, etc.) to the growing need for tax relief, health-care reform, better schools-you name it. They need guidance-and fast.

To that end, my Heritage Foundation colleagues have sketched a handy blueprint for progress, entitled "Agenda 2003" (available online at agenda.heritage.org). No, it's not what so many think tanks specialize in-dry, dusty tomes that languish on the shelf. Rather, "Agenda 2003" is a brief but authoritative overview of the major issues, with usable, plain-English recommendations for what lawmakers can do. Not next year-today.

Take health care. Everyone agrees something must be done about the 41.2 million Americans who lack health insurance. But what? As "Agenda 2003" notes, Congress took a step in the right direction last year when it created the first health-care tax credit for individuals. But lawmakers made it available only to about 200,000 workers who had lost jobs to overseas trade. According to Heritage health-care expert Nina Owcharenko, it's time to make such a credit available to all uninsured Americans, so they can finally begin to exercise some control over the cost and type of health benefits they get.

Then there's the welfare-reform law of 1996. It came up for renewal last year, but Congress refused to build on the success we've seen so far-soaring employment rates among single mothers, declining poverty rates, shrinking welfare rolls. Lawmakers merely extended the law another few months. So what does Heritage expert Robert Rector, chief author of the 1996 law, suggest the new Congress do? For starters, it should strengthen work requirements to ensure that welfare recipients are taking active steps to emerge from poverty.

At the same time, Congress must address the leading causes of poverty, such as single-parent households. Research by Rector and others have established beyond a doubt that children of intact two-parent families earn more, learn more, get into trouble less, have more successful marriages themselves and make the decisions on child-rearing, education and careers that move their families out of poverty.

For decades, we've spent about a penny to promote marriage for every dollar we've spent to address the problems of single-parent households-with no discernible good to show for it. Why, Rector asks, shouldn't Congress reallocate $300 million in welfare funds to promote sound marriages?

There's more-a lot more, in fact-packed into the pages of "Agenda 2003." How to build a Department of Homeland Security that isn't a bureaucratic mess. How to proceed with a workable missile defense. How to promote peace in the Middle East and beyond. How to repair a budget process that breaks down year after year. We've taken what we consider the best crash course in public policy around and made it widely available to the men and women who control the levers of our government.

"How much easier it is to be critical than to be correct," the famed British politician Benjamin Disraeli once said. Armed with "Agenda 2003," today's policy-makers can be both.


Edwin Feulneris 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