A good year's work


PRESIDENT BUSH and the newly elected Congress are about to enter what history suggests should be their most productive period: that first blast out of the gate into a new term when everyone is brimming with ideas and far enough away from the next election to safely spend political capital on them.

Trouble is, many of the agenda items being bandied about are so impractical and likely to spark so much resistance - a constitutional ban on gay marriage, for example - that they threaten to waste valuable time. Even Mr. Bush's top priority project - a Social Security overhaul - seems premature considering the more pressing work that remains undone.

Here, then, are some proposals for how our national leaders might better occupy themselves in the year ahead:

Balancing the budget: Not in one year, of course, but they could strike an agreement similar to the one adopted in 1997 that would put the budget on a glidepath to balance and reimpose discarded safeguards - such as pay-as-you-go requirements - to make sure balance is reached. Mr. Bush is promising a budget that would cut the $400 billion deficit in half within five years. That's a start, if he comes up with a reasonable plan to achieve it, but not good enough.

Medicare drugs: The health care program for the elderly is facing potential insolvency long before Social Security, and thus deserves attention first. Mr. Bush contends that the task is finished because of the 2003 legislation that added a drug benefit and launched a pilot program to experiment with more managed-care options. But most provisions won't even take effect until next year.

Meanwhile, Congress could save Medicare and all Americans some money by directing the government to negotiate bulk discounts with pharmaceutical companies. That would likely take steam out of the drive to import drugs from Canada, which at best is only a stopgap solution to the problem of high-cost medicine.

Monitoring homeland security: Now that the national intelligence network has been streamlined to put one official in charge, Congress must cut the clutter out of its process for overseeing the agencies. The Department of Homeland Security alone has been pulled from congressional pillar to post as every little committee and subcommittee demanded a piece of it. None of this kowtowing to Congress serves the interest of homeland security. The House and Senate should give primary jurisdiction to one or two panels each and let the security officials go about their work.

Electricity regulation: Left for dead when the last Congress adjourned was the $19 billion energy bill, which was so loaded with industry subsidies no attempt should be made to revive it. But there are some worthwhile elements that should be pulled out and passed. The most deserving would tighten regulation of the electrical grid with the aim of preventing widespread blackouts such as the one that darkened the Northeast two summers ago.

Not a long list, but such basic housekeeping tasks would help the government function better, and put the country on safer, sounder footing. It would be a good year's work.

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