- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Congress must solve problems that people care about most. We need to win the war on terror and solve our immigration problems. But if we stop there, Congress will fall short of its potential to improve the lives of the American people.

The customary divisions between Democrats and Republicans often reflect a divide betweenurbanandrural communities. In the last election, Republicans commanded rural votes while Democrats dominated the urban vote. Their votes represented a standard vision of American politics that is completely out of date. Today, most Americans do not live in urban or rural communities — they live in suburban communities.

Suburban families have consistently reported their top congressional priorities for the last 10 years: education, health care, conservation and the economy. It is high time Congress advanced a Suburban Agenda to meet these needs — setting priorities for legislation shared by many rural and urban families as well.

Last year, I formed a caucus in Congress to craft a new suburban work plan for the House. Our mission was to add new legislation for action in Congress that would directly meet the needs of suburban families from Seattle to Atlanta. After months of policy development, more than 50 members of Congress joined to unveil the Suburban Agenda. Congressional leaders and many Democrats now support this agenda. It represents a commonsense focus on solving key problems faced by millions of Americans.

In short, the Suburban Agenda reflects a dozen policy initiatives including:

• School Safety Acquiring Faculty Excellence Act (introduced by Rep. Jon Porter, Nevada Republican), which will allow school boards to screen criminal records of applicants for coach and teacher positions to make sure out-of-state pedophiles or felons are not put in charge of classrooms.

• The 401 Kids Family Savings Accounts (introduced by Rep. Clay Shaw, Florida Republican), which will build on the success of 401(k) plans by establishing tax-deferred savings for kids from birth to pay for education or the purchase of a first home.

• The Health Information Technology Promotion Act (introduced by Rep. Nancy Johnson, Connecticut Republican), which will build on the Veterans Administration’s success by accelerating the deployment of fully electronic medical records to improve care and reduce errors.

• The Deleting Online Predators Act (introduced by Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick, Pennsylvania Republican), which will protect children from online predators, especially the more than 10 million American kids whose data appear on social networkingsites such as MySpace.com.

• The Open Space and Farmland Preservation Act (introduced by Rep. Jim Gerlach, Pennsylvania Republican), which will establish grant programs to protect more suburban green and open space.

• The Gang Elimination Act of 2006 (introduced by Rep. Dave Reichert, Washington Republican), which will set federal policy to combat drug gangs now fighting suburban police departments.

These bills represent concrete action to make schools safer, health care better, habitats more protected and create savings for children to enter our great middle class. These are not partisan issues. Many Democrats have already cosponsored these measures. We need such bipartisan leadership to advance grass-roots, commonsense solutions for key priorities of American families.

Suburban families want to keep their children safe, with access to a good doctor, clean environments and savings for a financial future. They rightly look to their representatives and Congress to focus on similar priorities.

In the coming months, our House Suburban Caucus will introduce new legislation to extend COBRA insurance rights for life, enact Superfund program reforms to speed up the clean up of toxic waste sites and implement measures to help protect teachers and their students from guns or drugs brought into school.

American families need Congress to work on a strong, thoughtful agenda. The Suburban Agenda does not come out of “Republican” or “Democratic” thinking. It is a result of America’s 21st-century reality: suburban living.

Rep. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, is chairman of the Suburban Caucus.

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