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Commentary: Peterson on State of Union

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By Collin Peterson

When the President gave his State of the Union address this week he certainly didn't say everything I'd hoped to hear. However, I do think that he struck the proper tone and I got the clear impression that he's starting to hear what I've been hearing all along from people out in rural Minnesota - "cut spending, focus on the economy and jobs, and work together to get things done". That's exactly what we need to be doing to get our country back on track and if he's serious about that then I think Congress will do its part too.

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Spending is out of control and we absolutely have to get that stopped. By itself the President's proposal to freeze discretionary spending for three years isn't going to solve our larger problems but it's a step in the right direction and I think that if we can keep other committees from diverting our mandatory money most agriculture programs will still be OK. Maybe we should consider freezing spending for more than three years, but for now we should all support a three-year spending freeze and help get it done.

The President called for a Debt Commission and I agree with that, but more to the point we need one that can actually work. The sad fact is that Congress won't deal with this debt reduction issue no matter which party is in charge - all you have to do is look at the record to see the proof of that. I supported Senator Conrad's idea of a legislatively created Debt Commission and although Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats voted that down I'm still hopeful that we can get this done using the Executive Order approach that President committed himself to. It can work, but it absolutely must be done right.

The President mentioned a few ideas he has for increased spending on some specific programs that at other times and in other economic circumstances most of us might consider very worthwhile - but when we're already in debt beyond anything we've ever seen before I don't think this is the time for any "new" spending proposals.

I'm still not so sure that the President has gotten the people's message on health care. If he's been listening - and I hope he has been - he knows that people are skeptical to say the least. No matter who's talking - the government, the media, lobbyists, Republicans or Democrats -- you can't tell people "this is not going to affect you, it's not going to add to the deficit, and we're going to cover 30 million more people" and expect them to believe you. You can't get something for nothing. People know there's no free lunch. Cost shifting is a reality in health care, especially here in Minnesota, and any changes we make to our system could create more of that, and that's not what we should be doing. People know that getting more is going to cost more, and in the current economy you can't blame people for saying "no, thanks" to that.

But with all that said most of the Republicans and Democrats I talk to about health care really do want to get something done. I've told the President that he should back off a bit and focus on specific problems, like getting costs under control, fixing geographic disparities, covering pre-existing conditions for kids and letting them stay longer on their parents' insurance policies. Incremental progress in the right direction is something we can accomplish so we should figure out what most of us agree on and get that done. I think that if the President is willing to scale back his agenda and lead in a bipartisan manner Congress can pass meaningful legislation to make positive changes to the system that most people will support.

The President needs to keep working to convince Minnesotans and Americans in general that he understands what they're most concerned about. If he can do that then perhaps we can all set aside our ideologies and our political agendas and get back to working together to accomplish what the citizens of this country need.

Collin Peterson is Minnesota's 7th District Congressman. He is from Detroit Lakes.

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