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Commentary: Where do we go from here? A plea for true bipartisanship

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 26, 2010 - With the health-care bill now law, the logical question is: Where do we as a nation go from here?

Like all Republicans, I think that the legislation was a terrible mistake. It will certainly increase the power of government over the private sector, and, most important, it will create a large new entitlement program when America can ill afford one. But we Republicans fought a good fight, and we lost. Next November's election and on into the future, we will have many opportunities to advance our principled arguments about the excessive cost and weight of Washington -- arguments which, I believe, will win the support of most Americans.

However, we will not succeed in repealing the new law, certainly during the three remaining years of President Barack Obama's term. Some state attorneys general have asked the courts to overturn the law, a departure from normal Republican resistance to unelected judges barging into the political arena. The highly unlikely possibility that courts would strike down the law would cross new frontiers of judicial activism.

Some congressional Republicans, embittered in defeat, have given the appearance of poor losers. They have said that Democrats have "poisoned the well" and that there can be no more cooperation on other issues such as immigration, financial regulation and education. This attitude is understandable for Republicans who feel they were shut out of the legislative process and who note the strident tone of the president's recent campaign style rhetoric, but it ill serves the interests of the Republican Party, much less the nation. The answer to the question -- where do we go from here? -- must be more than pouting by one side and victory celebrations by the other.

We Americans, all of us, have a problem greater than the health-care debate or anything else we face, including the dreadful threat of terror. The problem is our national debt. Over the past 40 years, debt held by the public (exclusive of Social Security and Medicare trust funds) has averaged 36 percent of the gross domestic product. It is now on course to reach 100 percent in 2019 and 200 percent in 2032. Government debt will soak up national savings, crowd out productive investment, put upward pressure on interest rates and undermine future living standards.

Over the next decade, the percent of the federal budget required just to pay interest on the debt will grow from 5 to 15 percent, reducing government's flexibility to spend on infrastructure, education or other useful purposes. Because the share of our debt held by foreign investors is rapidly growing (from 39 percent in 1999 to 52 percent today), America will be increasingly vulnerable to foreign interests.

The shrewd political response to this problem has been to dispense placebos, creating illusions of effective action that would achieve clearly inadequate results. These placebos include a three-year freeze on non-security discretionary spending (that would reduce federal spending by little more than half of 1 percent over the next decade), elimination of earmarks and promises to curb waste, fraud and abuse. It's not that these ideas are completely worthless. They are fine as far as they go, but they don't go far.

By 2023, spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest on the debt will exceed all revenue of the federal government. This means that if we go well beyond a freeze and the elimination of waste, if we don't spend a dime on national defense and homeland security, if we empty our prisons and close the national parks, we will still be adding to the debt.

There are politically clever ways to position the two parties to advantage in the next election: pledging not to touch Medicare or Social Security; pledging not to raise taxes. Activists in each party demand such pledges from their nominees. But there is no politically clever way to meet effectively the problem of our national debt. It is clear that some combination of more revenue and containment of entitlements is critical to the future of America.

I, along with every other Republican, have strongly resisted proposals for more taxes. We believe that higher taxes would stunt the economy, impair economic recovery and perversely reduce government revenue. If we could have our way, deficits would be cut with no new taxes. Unfortunately, we cannot have our way. A resolution to the problem will require a bipartisan deal where both parties are willing to compromise.

However we Republicans lament the health-care legislation, the issue is behind us, and the question is where do we go from here?

The same questions goes for Democrats. President Obama continually speaks of the past, telling us that budget problems are not really his responsibility because he inherited them from Republicans. But the year is 2010; he is in the White House, and his party has large majorities in Congress. With those majorities, he has demonstrated with health care that he can achieve remarkable legislative results. Now is the time for results on containing the nation's debt.

Harry Truman famously kept a sign in the Oval Office that said, "The buck stops here." Well, the time is now, and it does not do to pass the buck backward in time to a bygone administration.

Nor does it do to pass the buck to a commission that is supposed to solve the debt problem for us. There is nothing wrong with commissions. I served on one created by President Bill Clinton that was supposed to address entitlements. But we have an elected commission, called Congress, that can ignore or subsequently undo what any appointed commission can recommend. What we need more than a new commission is political leadership by the president and both parties in Congress to solve a problem that, if left unsolved, will create a substantially weaker nation for future generations.

Where does the nation go from here? Where we must go is toward a bipartisan deal where our most popular entitlement programs and, I am reluctant to add, taxes are parts of a program to contain our national debt.

John Danforth served in the U.S. Senate from 1977-1994.