Credit card spending. Extravagant homes. Extra cars. Through the easy-living years of the 1990s' economy, Americans made a habit of living above their means--borrowing and borrowing so they could continue buying and buying.
Considering the average household debt (excluding mortgage payments) is around $10,000, you see consumers who are quick to choose what to buy but who have a much more difficult time choosing where to cut.
Such is the case of the current U.S. Congress, which features five new Hispanic legislators--all Republicans--who were swept into office during the November election GOP landslide. With the Senate still in Democratic hands, the conventional wisdom calls for a legislative stalemate in the run up to the 2012 presidential election. After all, the challenge is less about finding out what to cut than it is a matter of getting the political will from both parties to pull the trigger and drastically reform the big-ticket items that need to be cut. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and military spending have all ballooned the national debt in recent decades.
Of the five new Hispanics in Congress, all but one are from non-Hispanic majority districts. And every single one campaigned on a message of limiting government spending.
Freshman Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican who won an open seat in Washington state, calls the national debt "the most immediate issue this Congress must deal with."
The debt is her focus, Rep. Herrera Beutler says, reflecting a priority that came up repeatedly throughout her southwest Washington campaign. The issue was front and center in Texas as well, where Rep. Francisco Canseco, a former banker, won a seat in Congress.
"American families who have reached the limit on their credit don't get to simply vote themselves a higher credit limit," Rep. Canseco says. "They sit down and prioritize their spending to live within their means. The federal government should do the same thing."
Once in charge of the House, these new Republicans were proud to point to one of their first votes--a 5-percent cut to congressional office budgets.
"This move saved tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, but equally important, it demonstrated that Congress can no longer pretend it lives in a different economic reality than the rest of America," Rep. Beutler says.
Democrats labeled the vote nothing more than posturing.
"That vote was their way of saying 'We're going to make cuts,' " says Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., a member of President Obama's National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
Rep. Becerra said the early action from House Republicans--focusing on repealing the health-care law and passing a symbolic spending cut--showed a failure to address the real economic issue of the day: jobs. "That vote eliminated jobs," Rep. Becerra says of the 5 percent cut.
The national commission Becerra and other private- and public-sector figures sat on last year ended up with less-than surprising results--the entitlement programs need to be reined in or the debt will only grow.
Similarly, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a deficit-reduction plan last year calling for raising the Social Security retirement age, charging wealthy seniors more for Medicare and limiting popular tax deductions for home loan interest.
As the country crawls out of recession, the candidates of 2010 are now working to turn campaign economic rhetoric into reality.
Republicans, like newly elected Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, even said what House Republicans did--pledging to cut spending by $32 billion from the 2011 budget--was not nearly enough.
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