Senator Mark Kirk at the finish of Skyrise Chicago, the world's tallest stair climb at the Willis Tower. Sunday, November 4, 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times
Updated: February 3, 2013 6:20AM
On Thursday, Sen. Mark Kirk returns to the office. Let’s hope the last year of his life, one filled with struggle as he fought back from a devastating stroke, makes him a better senator, wiser and more compassionate about the role of government in addressing the needs of the poor and powerless.
Kirk will walk up the steps of the Senate and be greeted by Vice President Joe Biden. He will be surrounded by supporters and cheered by fellow senators. There will be much talk about his “triumph” and his “bravery” and it will be true; the Republican senator from Illinois has, in fact, demonstrated physical and mental toughness in his long rehabilitation. His recovery has been an inspiration.
We especially get a kick out of the way Sen. Kirk, wearing a brace on his left leg, climbed 37 flights of stairs in the Willis Tower on a Sunday in November. That’s a lot of stairs for anybody.
But let’s also be frank: Because he is a United States senator, Kirk was the beneficiary of the best medicine money could buy, a rehabilitation regime that spared no cost, and a peace of mind that came from knowing that he would never miss a paycheck, tap out his insurance or see his life’s savings go up in smoke. He was a lucky man in that way. Millions of Americans, though equally hard-working, can feel no such security, even after the creation of ObamaCare.
Kirk opposed Obama’s landmark Affordable Care Act, of course, as did almost every Republican in Washington. He warned it would result in “higher taxes, more debt and fewer jobs.” Now the question is whether he will work to undermine the law’s implementation, as other Republicans have vowed to do, effectively seeking to deny other Americans anything close to the kind of quality health care he so enjoyed.
In a column for the Sun-Times in early December, our colleague Phil Kadner made an excellent suggestion along these lines: Kirk should make public his medical bills. Let’s see exactly how much his insurance paid, how much he paid, how much he still owes and what he got for it. Then let’s compare that with the medical bills, insurance coverage and quality of care for, say, a truck driver in Melrose Park who has suffered a similarly bad stroke.
The larger issue here, however, is the importance of government in providing a basic safety net for all Americans. Access to decent health care is one priority. A good education and an adequate minimum income are two more. As Congress and President Obama move into the second phase of budget talks — what to cut in government spending — it’s essential that those cuts be fair and balanced, minimizing the pain to lower-income Americans, students and the elderly.
Everybody knows something has to give. As Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., of all people, wrote this week: “No one seriously doubts that the country’s fiscal ledger has gone awry. The public properly looks to its elected officials to craft a solution.”
And everybody knows that will mean scaling back, in some way, Social Security and Medicare. Eligibility ages may go up. Benefits may be reduced. It cannot be avoided.
But major cuts to the military must be part of the deal, certainly before we ask elderly Americans to get by with less. And further reform of the federal tax code, to eliminate more loopholes and deductions for the biggest corporations and wealthiest Americans, must be part of the deal, certain before we slash away at funding for education.
As Sen. Mark Kirk certainly knows, to be born in America is a stroke of luck, a good fortune that should be spread around.