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'It's time we had a fact-based conversation'

With the nation facing trillions in unfunded liabilities for entitlements, freshman Republicans like Rep. Bill Huizenga say they're ready to cast difficult but necessary votes and face the electoral consequences

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

WASHINGTON-Growing up in the 1970s in Zeeland, Mich.-a city in the western part of the state founded by the Dutch-Bill Huizenga recalls regular and robust family discussions at the dinner table over two topics: business and politics.

"What's a Watergate and why is everybody arguing about this?" were questions that puzzled the young Huizenga.

He listened to discussions about Vietnam, long gas lines, and the struggles facing his dad and uncle's concrete business. His impression of America during that time: Things just weren't going right.

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Today, Huizenga, 42, has a similar itch about the nation. It's a big reason why the former realtor and current small business owner now finds himself working just a few miles from the infamous Watergate landmark that brought down a presidency.

As one of 96 freshman House lawmakers, Huizenga now goes to work on problems that seem intractable. As t­axpayers in April wrestled with income figures and expenses that mostly included a few zeros, Democrats and Republicans disagreed on how to handle federal shortfalls involving numbers with 12 zeroes after them: trillions.

After months of wrangling, Congress on April 14 approved a spending bill that cuts $38 billion from the current fiscal year. That's a mere pinprick in the face of the nation's $14 trillion debt. But lawmakers couldn't even agree on that slice without theatrics and bitter partisan rancor that left the nation within an hour of a federal government shutdown.

Now an even bigger battle is emerging over the "big three" entitlements of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Together this mandatory spending swallows up 40 percent of the federal budget. These main drivers of our nation's mounting debt are structured with an open-ended, auto-pilot growth mechanism, meaning there is no limit to the amount of spending obligations as more people become eligible. Within a decade unless changes occur they will consume 50 percent of the budget.

It seems that no serious proposal to tighten the nation's fiscal belt can ignore changes to these entitlements. Yet they have long been considered the "third rail" of politics: Touch them and your career in government is dead.

But the climate in Washington is slowly and subtly shifting from a culture of spending to a culture of cutting. Huizenga is part of a freshman class that swears the nation's stability is more important to them than their professional job security. "I'm not afraid to make the tough votes," he said. "If I'm here for one term or 10 terms, it doesn't particularly matter to me."

He and others like him now on Capitol Hill are banking on the belief that Americans are ready to join them for this much delayed debate on entitlement reform. Step one, says Huizenga, is acknowledging the crisis.

The facts are sobering: Just a few years ago government officials predicted that by 2050 mandatory spending would require 100 percent of tax revenue. They were off-by almost 40 years. The White House Office of Management and Budget now projects that in the current fiscal year mandatory spending will exceed all federal receipts. That means all other programs from building the military to building roads would have to come from borrowed money.

"Why would you stick your head in the sand on this kind of stuff?" asks Huizenga. "It's time we had a fact-based conversation."

The situation may get a lot worse. Last year's Congress did not shrink the government; Congress grew it with the new healthcare law. Unless repealed, Obamacare will introduce new entitlement programs in the form of insurance subsidies. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that one in every three federal dollars will go toward health entitlement obligations by 2021. Meanwhile, massive spending obligations will occur over the next several decades as baby boomers retire.

Huizenga sees the country at an economic crossroads, and he says saddling the nation's children with debt is immoral. Before running for Congress Huizenga worked for two years as an administrator with the Zeeland Christian School (see sidebar). His office was right next to the school's choir room, and he often worked while accompanied by the sounds of students belting out spiritual tunes.

Today, he has his school ID hanging in his Washington office as a reminder of those times. "He has had very close contact with the next generation," explains Bill Van Dyk, the school's principal: "He now has a significant role to play in what kind of world those kids live in."

Huizenga says he has been encouraged that so many of his freshman colleagues seem to share the same vision: that they are in Washington at the right time to make major changes for future generations. He hopes that this freshman class will learn from the mistakes of their GOP predecessors: "We know that we have to walk the talk."

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