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Op-Ed - Sen. Tom Coburn: What Republicans can accomplish in the 112th Congress

Op-Ed

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The Washington Examiner

On Tuesday, the American people sent a clear message. Now is the time for politicians in Washington to make hard choices, live within our means and reduce the size of government.

Republicans have wisely described these results as a second chance rather than a mandate. The question now is whether we take that chance or squander our opportunity.

Our top two priorities should be to rein in wasteful spending and begin the task of repealing and replacing the health care bill.

Obviously, other important issues can't be ignored, such as passing pro-growth tax breaks, regulatory reform and other measures that will get businesses investing and hiring in the short term. Still, the solutions that will shape the future of the country and change the culture of Washington revolve around spending, health care and entitlements.

One lesson from the 1994 revolution is Republicans did a poor job of explaining to the American people why cutting spending and reducing the size of government itself is a positive, pro-growth agenda. We made it far too easy for the spending establishment to demagogue our efforts and co-opt Republican reformers. Today, that case should be easy to make.

In today's economy, spending restraint is stimulus. Our debt is already so massive that it is slowing economic growth considerably, by one point of gross domestic product annually, which translates into 1 million jobs not created every year because we refuse to make hard choices. The best jobs bill, therefore, is a spending rescissions bill.

Of course, this begs the question: What do we cut? Republicans have to quickly move beyond talking-point campaign rhetoric and on to specifics if we are going to be successful. The good -- and bad -- news is there is a vast amount of waste and sheer stupidity in the federal budget to choose from.

My office alone has identified more than $350 billion in wasteful, duplicative and inefficient spending. We can start by ending payments to dead people. That's one group that won't be hurt by spending cuts (savings: $1 billion).

We can end bonuses to contractors who don't perform (savings: $8 billion). We can ensure that government contracts are competitively bid (savings: $28 billion). We can sell unused federal buildings (savings: $18 billion). The list goes on and on.

One key test Republicans will face as early as this spring will be whether to bail out career politicians who have failed to budget by increasing the national debt limit, or instead force them to cut spending.

If Congress would cut spending, it may not be necessary to increase the debt limit this spring. If Republicans vote to raise the debt without insisting on spending cuts, whatever credibility we may have will be gone.

The arguments for raising the debt limit are predictable. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and others will argue that if we default on our loans we will trigger an economic apocalypse. In that case, the Senate better get busy.

The debt limit bailout debate is one we can predict. The question for Reid is not whether we'll say no to his desire to grow government and borrow -- we will -- but whether he'll say no and obstruct common sense spending cuts.

The American people rightly believe we are already headed for a debt-triggered apocalypse. I believe they expect us to block a debt limit increase that does not cut spending.

Republicans also should resist pressure to take all defense spending cuts off the table. Newly elected Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky had the courage to say he'd go after defense waste during his campaign, and I look forward to working with him.

We should start by taking common sense steps like freezing defense spending until the Pentagon can pass an audit and remove all nondefense spending from the Pentagon's budget. Our nation's military leaders understand the need to cut spending.

As Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "Our national debt is our biggest national security threat." History shows that every nation eventually adopts the foreign policy it can afford. Taking defense spending off the table is indefensible. We need to protect our nation, not the Pentagon's sacred cows.

Regarding earmarks, House Republicans at least seem to have gotten the message that it's time to end earmarks. I'm hopeful Senate Republicans will agree to ban earmarks as well. If Senate Democrats want to be the party of earmarks, let them. Meanwhile, I'll work with President Obama to fulfill his pledge to make all earmarks transparent and searchable on a public database.

Finally, in the area of health care we should repeatedly offer measures to repeal the entire health care bill wholesale. We should do this because the American people expect us to listen to them, and because it is important to repeatedly put members on record.

When Reid obstructs this effort, we can target individual areas of the bill and offer solutions of our own that will make health care more affordable and accessible. For instance, we should work together to target the more than $100 billion in fraud that exists in Medicare and Medicaid.

If Republicans offer serious proposals in these two areas -- spending and health care -- we will be well on our way toward changing the culture of Washington. We also, of course, have to tackle entitlement reform.

Yet, we will never have the credibility and public support to reform entitlements if we don't start with easy work of ending federal subsidies to dead people, for instance.

Ronald Reagan once said that our problems are "in direct proportion to the overspending in Washington." That's truer now more than ever.


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