January 15, 2008

January 15, 2008 | Commentary on

"Good News" Headlines for 2008: 10 Positive Changes Washington Can Achieve This Year

For years, now, Congress has been collared with a "do-nothing" label. Gridlock born of bitter partisanship seems to be the nature of the beast.

But now and then, both Houses demonstrate the ability to rise above petty political point-scoring and unite for a higher purpose. Typically the unifying cause is sudden and dramatic--a natural disaster or an imminent threat to national security. But even in the absence of urgent, action-forcing events, sharp-eyed Washington observers can spot men and women from both sides of the aisle quietly working together in pursuit of effective, common-ground policies that can make real progress. These sub rosa sessions may not yield block-buster legislation that brings radical reform, but they can result in important, incremental improvements that contribute significantly to building a safer, healthier, more prosperous America.

Below you will find 10 doable headlines that reflect some of the incremental improvements that Washington can and should be able to make this year. No "pie-in-the-sky" wish list, these headlines summarize things that can be readily accomplished--sometimes unilaterally, but usually as the result of long-standing, good-faith bipartisan efforts to address some of our nation's most pressing problems.

U.S. Inks Missile Defense Accord with Poles, Czechs

The Iranian missile threat grows apace. In November, Tehran announced it had added a new long-range (2,000 km) missile, the Ashoura, to its growing arsenal. And despite a recent National Intelligence Estimate, many analysts remain convinced that the terrorist-supporting nation continues to pursue a clandestine nuclear weapons program. It could have an operational nuclear ICBM by 2013, if not earlier.

To counter this emerging threat, it is essential to quickly complete negotiations with the Czech Republic and Poland that will allow us to build a "third site" missile defense system to protect our troops and allies in Europe. The system would include 10 interceptors in northern Poland and a radar installation in the Czech Republic. It will take five years to install these critical defenses--barely enough time to reach the finish line ahead of the Iranian threat.

Of course, once the accord is reached with the Europeans, Congress must do its part, by fully funding the project. That should be doable. During last year's debate over military spending, Rep. Duncan Hunter's (R-Calif.) amendment to strengthen the U.S.-Israel cooperative missile defense program passed by an overwhelming majority in the House. Such cooperation isn't limited to Israel.

President Signs "Honest Accounting" Bill;

"Full Disclosure" Provisions Now Apply to Federal Budget

Just as corporations owe their stockholders an honest accounting, so the federal government owes its citizens an honest report of the nation's fiscal status. To this end, Congress should change the federal budget process so that it reports--and takes into account in every annual budget--the nation's rapidly growing unfunded obligations.

Unfunded obligations arise when Congress promises to pay future benefits without adopting a way to pay for those obligations. The Big Three Entitlement programs--Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security--have racked up long-term (75-year) unfunded obligations totaling $53 trillion, the equivalent of a $170,000 mortgage hanging over every man, woman and child in America. Yet the current budget process ignores these obligations, encouraging lawmakers to budget and spend as though these promises will never come do.

Corporations, states and local governments are now required to disclose their unfunded obligations and to take appropriate steps to assure that their fiscal house is in order. Congress should do no less. It should reform the budget process to provide a full accounting of the federal government's unfunded obligations in the budget, and to require lawmakers to vote each year on whether they are taking steps to decrease or increase that total.

Senate Rejects Law of the Sea Treaty

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (widely know as the Law of the Sea Treaty) has languished unratified in Washington for more than a quarter-century--and rightly so.

President Reagan rejected LOST in 1982, citing several major deficiencies. His over-riding concern was that the host of new international administrative, legislative and judicial institutions created by the Convention to control access to and use of ocean resources would severely undercut our national sovereignty and push us a long way down the path toward world government.

LOST proponents argue that Reagan's objections focused heavily--if not exclusively--on the treaty's deep-seabed mining restrictions and that the problems were corrected in the subsequent Agreement of 1994. Such claims have swayed President Bush to call for ratification of LOST.

Unfortunately, the '94 agreement--though an improvement--inadequately addresses the concerns over ocean mining. Moreover, it fails to make a dent in the one-worldism implicit in the document. For example, it would require the U.S. to assume a number of obligations at odds with its national security interests, including a commitment not to collect intelligence. As Ambassador James Malone, Reagan's chief negotiator on LOST, said in 1995, "Today, not only are the seabed mining provisions inadequately corrected, and the collectivist ideologies of a now-repudiated system of global central planning still imbedded in the treaty, new and potentially serious concerns have arisen."

LOST never came to a vote last year because Senate leaders found they couldn't muster the two-thirds majority required for ratification. It deserves to meet the same fate in 2008.

Bush orders agencies to ignore earmarks;

Move quashes $15 billion in pork projects

Congress has become addicted to earmarks--the practice of "earmarking" grant money to specific recipients, rather than letting agencies distribute it according to statutory formula or through competitive bidding. Earmarks have become the coin of pork-barrel politics and political payoffs. The number of earmarks metastasized from 958 in 1996 to 11,331 last year.

While eliminating earmarks would not immediately reduce spending, it would ensure that grants are distributed by merit rather than politics and dampen the ever-growing appetite for federal largesse.

President Bush can help reduce this abusive budgetary tactic by exercising his executive authority. He should issue an Executive Order instructing agencies to ignore all non-binding earmarks. Most earmarks never appear in actual appropriations legislation. Rather, they are inserted in conference reports, the explanatory statements that accompany legislation going to the White House for signature.

Because these reports are not technically part of the bill, the Executive Branch is not legally bound to implement their provisions. The reports accompanying the recent omnibus appropriations bill included an estimated 9,170 earmarks totally $15 billion in expenditures. They should be ignored.

Congress Approves No-Match Bill;

DHS Gets New Tool to ID Illegals

Fences and border patrols alone are insufficient to deal with illegal immigration. Any comprehensive effort to reduce the flow of undocumented workers and restore respect for our immigration laws must include a workplace enforcement component--to help employers have confidence they are hiring legally and to help crack down on employers that persist in routinely hiring undocumented workers.

"No-Match" notices from the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security have been helpful in this regard. In 2005, SSA mailed out 10 million notices to employers alerting them that an employee had submitted information (name, Social Security number, etc.) that didn't match SSA records. It is estimated that up to 90 percent of these "no-match" workers are in the country illegally.

But even though it's long been unlawful for employers to hire or retain employees known to be "unauthorized" aliens, immigration officials have, at least until recently, tacitly encouraged employers to skirt this requirement by allowing them to accept virtually any identity document, so long as it "appears to be genuine."

Last summer, the feds finally tried to close this loophole. They wanted to send letters to 140,000 employers with large numbers of "no-match" employees, alerting them to their responsibility to correct these discrepancies and reminding them that they could face criminal penalties or fines as high as $10,000 per illegal worker if they did not do so within 90 days.

Last fall, however, US District Judge Maxine Chesney in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order blocking DHS and SSA from mailing out these notices.

Congress should remove this impediment to immigration law enforcement by passing legislation that would specifically call for the resumption of no-match mailings. Moreover, the measure should also authorize SSA to routinely share no-match data directly with DHS. This can be done in a way that scrupulously protects employees' privacy and civil liberties. Lawmakers interested in showing that they're serious about reducing illegal immigration and upholding the rule of law should welcome the opportunity to "climb aboard" such a bill.

Feds Unleash States to Fix Health Care

Washington remains deadlocked over healthcare reform to increase insurance coverage. But that's not to say Congress can't help others make progress in this vital area.

Federal inaction has spurred many states, such as Massachusetts, to develop innovative plans for expanding coverage within their borders. But right now states are constrained in what they can do -- they can work within federal rules but can't get permission to alter federal programs or move money between programs even if that would cover more people at lower cost. Congress should pass legislation that will give states "legislative waivers" touse their existing allotment of federal health funds creatively in furtherance of any reasonable proposal designed to significantly expand health coverage at no net cost to the federal treasury. States would get permission to do this for five years to prove one way or other whether their approach is successful.

This idea, first raised by experts at The Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution, has already generated strong bipartisan support. Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced the State-Based Health Reform Act last year. Similar legislation was introduced by Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M. and George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and by Reps. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.).

These are all "odd couple" pairings. The paired co-sponsors disagree sharply on how best to extend health coverage to more and more Americans. Some favor a government-centered health system; others want a market based system; still others advocate a "blended" approach. But all share an overriding desire to fix the problem.

Absent a national agreement on what should be done, Congress should free the states to serve as "laboratories of experimentation," pursuing their own remedies for this critical problem.

U.S.-Colombia Trade Pact Sails Through Congress

A key component of the U.S. economy, trade is absolutely vital to continued growth and prosperity. As the possibility of recession draws nearer, Congress would do well to signal that it is serious about promoting the U.S. role as a global trader. Enter the bilateral Trade Promotion Agreement with Colombia.

With Congressional approval of the pact, Colombia would the latest Western Hemisphere nation (joining the ranks of Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic and the countries of Central America) to have its own trade and investment partnership with the U.S.

Beyond the obvious economic benefits to both nations, approval of the pact would deliver positive diplomatic developments. It would strengthen President Álvaro Uribe, a staunch ally who has fought successfully since 2002 to make Colombia a more democratic, stable, and prosperous state. It also would help bolster prosperity and security throughout Latin America, helping counter both the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas and Hugo Chávez's illusory promises of progress via "21st Century Socialism."

Congress has an opportunity to assist one of our closest allies in the Andean region and to strengthen an important economic link. Failure to close the trade deal this year 2008 will reflect poorly on the reliability of the U.S. as a friend and partner in the Americas.

Commissioners Named to Entitlement Reform Panel

Last week Moody's credit-rating agency warned that the soaring cost of entitlement programs might well cost the U.S. the triple-A credit rating it has enjoyed for the last 90 years. Yet Congress, paralyzed by political fear and partisan grandstanding, seems incapable of addressing the ruinous explosion of entitlement spending through the normal legislative process. And few candidates are willing even to discuss options for restraining spending growth in programs such as Social Security and Medicare.

And so Washington whistles past the fiscal graveyard. The Congressional Budget Office projects that, absent reform, federal spending could drive federal tax rates up to 90% or more--on both corporations and individuals--by 2045.

Fortunately, some lawmakers are focusing on practical ways to force serious decisions on the problem. For example, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) have introduced a bill to create a bipartisan commission to craft a plan that would end ever-rising taxes and spending in a way acceptable to the general public.

Modeled in some ways after the successful base-closings commissions, the Wolf-Cooper commission would implement a series of public hearings to talk honestly about the nation's long-term fiscal difficulties and the options for dealing with it. Armed with feedback from this national conversation, the commissions would then craft detailed recommendations for "fast-track" consider by Congress. The resulting legislation would include reforms to "limit the growth of entitlement spending," strengthen the social "safety net," "increase private savings," and make the tax code "more efficient and more conducive to encouraging economic growth." If Congress failed to come up with a better solution, it would be required to vote on the Commission plan, up-or-down, in toto.

Congress Enhances Anti-Terrorism Surveillance Authority

Congress enacted the Protect America Act last August to assure the continued collection of vital intelligence information overseas.

The PAA included two key provisions. It restored intelligence agencies' authority to monitor the phone, internet and other electronic communications of terrorists and potential terrorists living and operating in foreign lands, even if there was some possibility those communications might be routed through an American switching system. It also protected telecommunications providers from frivolous (but potentially costly) suits like those filed by some who imagine their privacy was invaded when those companies cooperated with government surveillance requests after the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.

But the PAA was only a temporary "fix." It is set to expire Feb. 1. If that happens, the U.S. would have to cease communications surveillance on thousands of foreign terrorists, making the task of detecting and preventing terrorism even harder than it is today.

The PAA passed with bipartisan support last year. Congress should act in a similar nonpartisan spirit this year and make the Act permanent. One improvement is needed: The liability protections should be strengthened (i.e., made retroactive and permanent) so that no American business is put through the wringer for cooperating with reasonable intelligence requests from our government.

Congress Okays Auto IRAs

Low Income, Minority Workers to Benefit Most

Social Security benefits alone are not enough to assure a financially secure retirement. Yet America's personal savings rate -- saving as a percentage of income -- has dropped below zero, and traditional employer-sponsored defined benefit pensions, which have served workers so well for decades, are rapidly eroding.

Worse, half the workforce--about 78 million Americans--work for employers who offer no retirement plan at all.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution and The Heritage Foundation have proposed a simple, effective way to help these workers save: an "automatic IRA." Under their proposal, a business that isn't ready to adopt a 401(k) or other retirement plan would simply offer its employees the chance to contribute to an IRA every payday by direct deposit--much as many have their paychecks deposited directly into their bank accounts. It's easier to save small amounts on a regular basis. And once payroll deposits begin, they continue automatically and accumulate tax-free.

Employees would decide whether and how much to contribute. But the experts recommend that enrollment be the "default" option--so that employees would have to opt out of participating, rather than opt in. In 401(k) plans, such a feature has dramatically increased participation--especially among lower-income and minority workers.

The idea has attracted broad, bipartisan support, and a bill advancing this program is already in the hopper. Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Gordon Smith (R-Ore) introduced the Automatic IRA Act last year.

Michael Franc is vice president of government relations for The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

About the Author

Michael Franc Distinguished Fellow
Government Studies