Here's what Eric Cantor didn't say

Former U.S. House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor did something in his Monday commentary ("Here's what Congress needs to do in 2015") most politicians never do: put children first. His observation that 8,053,000 children will be born during this Congress is a powerful reminder about the consequences of congressional action or inaction. Those consequences aren't just measured in news cycles dominated, elections won, and legislatures controlled. They're measured in children's lives.

Eric Cantor
Adam Jeffery | CNBC
Eric Cantor

What's missing from Congressman Cantor's commentary is the sweeping range of issues before Congress with the potential to fundamentally impact America's children. But, using data from the nonpartisan Annie E. Casey Foundation's KIDS COUNT Data Center, that's a picture we can paint.

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The data show that, unless Congress makes children a real priority, the consequences for the more than 8 million children who will be born during their tenure are alarming. If Congress does nothing, more than 73,000 of those children will be abused or neglected. More than 560,000 will be uninsured, even after the implementation of "comprehensive" health reform. More than 1.7 million will live in poverty — a disadvantage that research has shown to have lifelong consequences for academic performance, income, and even health.

Eric Cantor's agenda for a new Congress
Eric Cantor's agenda for a new Congress   

More than 3.3 million will be the children of immigrants, many of whom will go to sleep each night in fear that the government will take their parents away before the next morning. And more than 4.4 million won't be enrolled in preschool, even though decades of research show that quality pre-kindergarten can level the playing field and give children in low-income families a chance to reach their full potential.

History shows that Congress can make a real difference for kids. In 1987, Congress and President Ronald Reagan chartered a National Commission on Children charged with developing recommendations for federal policies to address dozens of the most pressing problems facing America's children at that time. And, reflecting the bipartisan compromise required to create it, the commission included liberals and conservatives, academics and advocates, policy makers and parents.

And it made a real difference. The commission's work and its 1991 final report contributed to national policy reforms that delivered real gains for America's children.

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The bipartisan Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) is a powerful example. Created in 1997 by President Bill Clinton and a Congress led by Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, CHIP it's a model of state flexibility, it's a true private-public partnership, and an astounding success, having reduced child uninsurance in America, even in the wake of a recession. Today, CHIP provides quality, dependable, and affordable health care for more than 8 million children whose working parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but too little to afford quality coverage in the individual market. And without CHIP, millions more children would be uninsured.

Federal tax policy is another example of the commission's success. The federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) was established in 1975, but President George H.W. Bush worked with Congress to make it more responsive to the needs of families with children. President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush also worked with Congress to strengthen the EITC. President Clinton and Congress created the Child Tax Credit the same year they created CHIP, and President George W. Bush worked with Congress to strengthen it twice. These two credits, inspired by the bipartisan commission's tax policy recommendations, are now America's most effective defense against child poverty, and without them, more than five million additional children would live in poverty today.

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Today, kids are largely an afterthought on Capitol Hill. But it wasn't so long ago that children really were a priority. Now, a quarter-century later, it's well past time for Congress to create a new National Commission on Children. For 8,053,000 reasons, this is the time for Congress to act.

Commentary by Bruce Lesley, president of the First Focus Campaign for Children, a bipartisan children's advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @brucelesley.