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.
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."
That's why Huizenga said it's important for the new House to go ahead and tackle spending changes despite likely pushback from the Democratic-led Senate and veto threats from President Obama: "We need to stake our territory. . . . In politics we prove every day that man is depraved, sinful, fallen, and evil. But we also know that God's got a plan."
Mathematically, the problem of entitlements is not all that difficult: People are living longer and fewer workers are supporting each retiree. Conservatives support gradually raising the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility age for Medicare. If both kicked in at age 70, Medicare would see $140 billion in savings and Social Security $247 billion in savings annually by 2030. Many conservatives also support giving reduced entitlement benefits to wealthier Americans. Warren Buffet, for example, would not get a Social Security check.
Politically, though, the challenge is great. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey showed fewer than one in four Americans supporting significant changes to Social Security or Medicare. This reluctance crosses party lines and age ranges: By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Tea Party members opposed cuts to Social Security.
But the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler says education is the key. He tells a story about one 80-year-old's reaction to a recent discussion of entitlements at Ohio State University. The man walked to a microphone and said he had spent the presentation sitting beside a university student who told him about his mounting student debt.
"I paid into Social Security," the man said. "I'm entitled to it. But I'd be willing to actually share it with this young man. I shouldn't get all of this if it means that this young man is indebted all of his life because of it."
The man had two conditions: that the federal government did not take the savings from reduced benefits and spend it elsewhere and that he would be taken care of if faced with a serious illness. "When you lay out the facts to people they seem to be willing to give up some of their entitlements for their grandkids," said Butler, who added he got similar reactions from places as left-leaning as Berkley, Calif. "Showing politicians that they can actually talk about these issues is crucial."
But some lawmakers seem to be entrenched in the belief that promises to protect entitlements will pay off in the 2012 elections. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would be willing to look at Social Security reform but not for another two decades. And Obama's April 13 address on budget reform had the sound of a campaign speech more than a policy proposal. He skewered Republican budget plans as offering a "deeply pessimistic" future for America. "We have to use a scalpel and not a machete to reduce the deficit," Obama said.
Days later the Republican-led House did pass a budget blueprint that would cut $6 trillion in spending over the next decade. While promising no changes to people 55 and over, the plan would eventually overhaul Medicare: The government would no longer directly pay medical bills-a practice that does little to encourage efficiency. Instead, federal subsidies would help Medicare patients purchase private insurance plans where competition lowers prices.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the author of the plan, argued that "trying to protect the government's major entitlement programs by maintaining the status quo is, in fact, the surest way to destroy them." His plan would also transform the federal portion of Medicaid payments into block grants for states. This would give states more flexibility in providing care to the poor while ending the current competitive grant system that leads to a "spend it or lose it" mindset among state officials.
Still, resolutions by one party are unlikely to resolve the problem. Former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, who chaired the Finance Committee during the budget debates of the mid-1980s, said political restraints tied to the approaching election year mean the "only hope for seeing any significant entitlement reform is that both parties do it and neither party takes the lead."
"The crisis is upon us," he said at a recent budget forum on Capitol Hill. "But I don't sense Congress is there yet, and I don't sense they will be there."
The fact that Obama's high-profile budget speech was so light on specifics seems to support Packwood's fears that a grand bargain on the budget will be elusive.
But Huizenga and other GOP freshmen say they are there. They may not have the same bully pulpit as the president, but they are going on their own fiscal wake-up tours.
Huizenga made three promises during his campaign last fall and even printed them on T-shirts. Protect life. Create jobs. Stop spending.
He recently reached 30,000 people from his district during three telephone town hall meetings on the budget. He said two-thirds of the callers encouraged him to vote for the Ryan budget. "You have to say it a lot and you have to say it loud to make it sink in," he said about being upfront about entitlement woes.
So, after ending a recent phone conversation with me, Huizenga said his next call was to a Michigan hospital executive who had written urging the congressman to oppose proposed cuts to Medicaid.
"We have to budget for future generations," he said, "not the next election cycle."
Americans and budget priorities
Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll
What two items should be the top priority for the federal government
• Job creation and economic growth - 56%
• The deficit and government spending - 40%
• Healthcare - 28%
• National security and terrorism - 20%
• Energy and the cost of gas - 20%
• The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - 13%
• Immigration - 12%
Which of the following programs do you think could be cut significantly?
• Subsidies to build new nuclear power plants (Totally or mostly acceptable: 57% | Mostly or totally unacceptable: 40%)
• Federal assistance to state governments (52% | 45%)
• The Environmental Protection Agency (51% | 46%)
• Medicare (23% | 76%)
• Social Security (22% | 77%)
• K through 12 education (22% | 77%)
Will it be necessary to cut Medicare to significantly reduce the deficit?
Yes: 18% | No: 54% | Not sure: 28%
Will it be necessary to cut Social Security to significantly reduce the deficit?
Yes: 22% | No: 49% | Not sure: 29%
If the deficit can't be eliminated by cutting wasteful spending, which of these do you favor?
Cut important programs: Feb. 2011 35% | June 1995 27%
Raise taxes: Feb. 2011 33% | June 1995 23%
Not long after giving one of his first speeches on the House floor, Rep. Bill Huizenga settled into a plush leather chair beside a fire in the lodge-like Speaker's Lobby located just off the House chamber. He then told me how his new title as congressman marks the pinnacle of a series of "Jonah moments."
As a high-school senior, Huizenga had no plans to go to college. He figured he'd work for the family business, maybe take some courses at the local community college, and enjoy the quiet life in Zeeland. But school counselors pushed him to Calvin College.
He began there as a business major, but his first political science class captivated him. When he tried to tell his advisor that he should remain a business major, the advisor pointed out how animated he got when talking about politics. Soon Huizenga was the chair of the college's Republican Club. He left school for a semester his senior year to intern at the Republican Study Committee in Washington.
After graduation Huizenga again resisted politics and settled on a path toward becoming a partner in a West Michigan real estate firm. When the Republicans took control of the House in 1994, Huizenga turned down a chance to move to Washington to work for his district's congressman, Pete Hoekstra.
Then two years later-with Huizenga edging closer to partner status at the firm-Hoekstra called again. This time he asked Huizenga out to lunch, and, after another initial rejection, Huizenga eventually signed on as the congressman's district director.
For six years, Huizenga traveled the district cultivating relationships. That work paid off in 2002 with election to the Michigan legislature-but his time in Lansing was frustrating, as Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed any conservative bill that managed to pass both chambers.
Term-limited out of office after six years, Huizenga felt like a "washed up old has-been at the ripe old age of 39." The gravel company he had bought an interest in was facing hard times with the collapse of the construction industry. That's when Huizenga literally got called into the principal's office one day after dropping his children off at school.
"I don't care if you are 4, 14, or 40, if you get one of those hooked-finger looks from the principal, it is like, 'What did I do? Am I in trouble?'"
But the summons came with a job offer. He went to work at the Zeeland Christian School. Two years later he ran for Congress. In a seven-way primary Huizenga got outspent 3-to-1 by the frontrunner. He wasn't sure going to Washington was a door God would open: "I had to come to the point in my own walk that I knew that I was being faithful in the journey," Huizenga said. "The destination was God's, and I had to give that over."
Huizenga is strongly pro-life. His wife, Natalie, had five miscarriages leading up to the birth of their first child. Doctors told them that they should consider adoption or a childless marriage. He recalls, "It is times like those that you either get closer to each other and God or get driven away from each other and God."
Today they have five children. Their oldest son recently turned 13, and Huizenga spent the last decade as the Right to Life representative for his church, Haven Christian Reformed Church. Natalie is on the board of a local crisis pregnancy center.
Huizenga says his first months in Washington have shown him that he is not alone in his beliefs. "People tell you that I am glad there is at least one person of faith, one Christian, in Washington," he said, "and then you start describing who some of the people here are and they say, 'Oh, I didn't know.'"