Our agenda for the incoming Congress

The nation and the world have been obsessed this week with the election of Barack Obama, and appropriately so. But at least as much power resides at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, in the halls of Congress. The course of our country over the next two to four years will be determined in large part by how the House and Senate manage their newly enlarged Democratic majorities and what they do and don't push through to Obama's desk.

Here's a very partial list of what we'd like to see them tackle:

Iraq. More than five years after the invasion and the “Mission Accomplished” banner, it's time to steadily withdraw most of our troops. President Bush himself had said that U.S. troops should come home once the functioning Iraqi government is ready for them to leave. The Iraqi government is ready. It reiterated days after Obama's election that it wanted a firm timetable for withdrawal. Congress should give it to them, and leave just enough troops to provide for training, infrastructure, protection of diplomatic personnel and other basic needs. The reasons for us to be there in the first place have been mostly discredited, and even the near-legitimate goals have been met.

At the same time, Congress should put a bigger emphasis on the war in Afghanistan and counter-terrorism operations there and in Pakistan. That's where the fight should have been all along.

Balancing the budget. Could the federal budget be a bigger mess? Actually, yes, it could, and is headed that way. That's despite the fact that it has been a shambles for much of the Bush administration, even with Republicans controlling Congress most of that time.

Our country's public debt, which fell each of the last four years of the Clinton administration, has grown each year of the Bush administration. It's now pushing $5 trillion and as a percent of GDP is heading toward its highest level since recovering from World War II.

This is a bipartisan problem. Congress has never been inclined to cut spending under either party. Now we're bailing out Wall Street, fighting two wars, giving out earmarks and looking the other way on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Your and our households are having to cut back in these tough economic times. Government must too, minimizing new spending and cutting where it can. Congress needs to make balanced budgets a top priority, which will mean tax reform, reduced defense spending and the biggie, which is …

Entitlement reform. How long have we known that the financial underpinning of Social Security and Medicare will certainly crumble? Decades. Still, Congress buries its head in the sand, puts off fixing it and so makes the ultimate pain worse.

The first Baby Boomers will turn 65 during Obama's term and will start drawing down Social Security and Medicare. That will be only the first crack in the dam. An additional 78 million Boomers are right on their heels, and the government has promised them and their children trillions more in coming years than payroll taxes will provide.

Congress's failure to address this problem is a disgrace. Sue Myrick, Larry Kissell, Mel Watt, John Spratt and the Carolinas' other delegation members need to stand up and acknowledge the size of this problem. Medicare's implosion, which is a certainty if nothing changes, will make the Wall Street bailout look cheap. As painful as reforming the system will be, it would hurt even more to wait, and would put an immense burden on our children.

Immigration. The current Congress failed to pass immigration reform and the issue has taken a backseat recently to the economic crisis. But nothing has changed: millions of illegal immigrants live in this country, caught between their own decision to break U.S. law and America's schizophrenic attitude about their presence here. This Congress should pass comprehensive reform that tightens borders, cracks down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants and provides a path for immigrants to work here legally. Congress should create a guest-worker program and reauthorize the E-Verify system that lets employers confirm the immigration status of job applicants.

A few quick and easy fixes blocked by President Bush that President Obama will certainly sign. Congress must expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which is set to expire this spring and is vital to providing health insurance for our most vulnerable citizens. It also should approve public funding for stem cell research and pass the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, giving women more opportunity to sue for gender discrimination in pay.