Specific reforms to entitlements must be outlined

This could be the decisive and historic year the federal government swerves away from bankruptcy. But progress will require the president and his party to exercise previously unseen political courage on entitlement reform.

For four years, President Obama has failed to show leadership on budget issues, even spending the last press conference of his first term lecturing Congress to “pay the bills they have already racked up” as if he had no role driving up record deficits that have made his presidency the most debt-ridden in history. In reality, Obama inherited a yearly deficit of $459 billion that he promptly increased to more than $1 trillion each of his four years in office, as the national debt ballooned from $10.6 trillion and 70 percent of GDP to $16.4 trillion and 105 percent of GDP.

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Part of the debt explosion can be attributed to the recession and shifting demographic trends overwhelming the entitlement system. Yet the president rejected the prudent course of spending restraint and pursued a legislative agenda that would be considered reckless even under surplus conditions, pushing through a $787 billion “stimulus” and a $1.9 trillion healthcare bill via party-line votes. The president has not proposed a serious plan to balance the budget and has failed to embrace the recommendations of his own debt commission.

Then there is the dysfunctional Democratic Senate. It should be a national outrage that the Senate hasn’t once bothered to pass a budget during four of the most economically challenging years since the Great Depression. The Senate’s total abdication of responsibility extends to all aspects of the budget process, leading to a breakdown in regular order and pushing the nation to the brink of one fiscal crisis after another. 

The most noticeable of these fiascos is the “fiscal cliff,” which was barely avoided when the Senate finally roused itself to act Jan. 1 on legislation House Republicans passed the previous May. Senate inaction has created a whole series of mini-cliffs. While the House passed six FY 12 appropriations bills, the Senate passed only one, setting up a funding standoff that very nearly shut down the government in April 2011. The nation was again threatened with shutdown — as well as debt default — in August 2011, thanks to the Senate’s refusal to act on responsible debt-ceiling legislation passed by the House in July. For FY13, the House passed seven of 12 appropriations bills, while the Senate failed to bring even one to the floor. 

No one can expect a Democratic Senate and Republican House to agree on everything. That’s why the founders created the conference committee process. If Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) chamber doesn’t like a piece of House legislation, it is welcome and constitutionally obligated to amend it and send it back. However, the recent practice of ignoring House bills and refusing to act until the government is on the verge of crisis must end. 

Systematic failure to discharge the most basic responsibilities of governing has led us to the threshold of another potential catastrophe, as deadlines for the debt ceiling, sequestration and the continuing resolution converge. Yet all the legislative elements that seem to point to more turmoil could just as easily create progress. The short calendar seems like a liability, but it forces action. The fiscal-cliff debate was contentious, but resulted in permanent tax cuts that take revenue off the table, ensuring that any debt-reduction solutions must be focused on entitlement reform and spending restraint. 

Even our divisions can be an asset. Some of the most successful reforms in recent history have occurred under divided governments — from the spending caps and tax reforms of the Reagan/O’Neill partnership to welfare reform and balanced budgets achieved by former President Clinton and a Republican Congress led by former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). 

The scale of entitlement reform necessary to prevent a debt crisis requires equally historic levels of bipartisanship. The president has consistently demanded that Republicans defer to his liberal agenda without once asking his own party to make comparable compromises for the good of the nation. Just as Republicans have been willing to consider revenue increases, Democrats must come to the table with sacrifices of their own. Beginning with the State of the Union address, Obama must outline specific and meaningful entitlement reforms and hold his party accountable for achieving them.  

In his inaugural address, Obama stated, “We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.” If he will apply those words to his own party, historic reforms are possible.

Cole (R-Okla.) is a member of the House Budget, Appropriations and Rules committees.