Commentary: Entitlements need reforming

E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.
E. Thomas McClanahan is a columnist for the Kansas City Star. MCT

One of the most striking aspects of the debt-ceiling debate has been the lengths to which Democrats have gone to deny the need for change in our entitlement programs. Many refuse to accept that without reform of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, our fiscal situation cannot be stabilized.

Consider the reaction when President Obama agreed to means testing in Medicare. It was only a tentative move in the direction of reform, but it was as if he had picked up a hot rock. His gambit triggered an immediate reaction from the left.

The Senate Gang of Six plan had some positive points, namely lower tax rates. It, too, envisioned entitlement reform, but only in theory. The details would have to be filled in later by Senate committees.

A big problem was the hard left, which decreed that no reform could be permitted, apparently because that would limit the power of the familiar notion that Republicans exist mainly to shred the safety net. “They don’t just want to make cuts,” intoned former House speaker Nancy Pelosi. “They want to destroy. They want to destroy food safety, clean air, clean water, the Department of Education. They want to destroy your rights.”

In this debate, Obama missed a major opportunity to seize the center.

Last year, a commission he appointed issued a report charting a reasonable path forward: entitlement reform, a retooled tax system with fewer loopholes and lower rates and, yes, more revenue. The report got bipartisan buy-in. The White House ignored it.

Instead, Obama offered a budget in February that was unable to draw a single Senate vote, then he followed up in April with a set of revisions so vague the Congressional Budget Office refused to estimate their cost.

Some Democrats would have us believe that our immediate problem stems almost entirely from the Bush years. Yet despite two wars, tax cuts and a new prescription drug benefit in Medicare, the federal deficit shrank to $161 billion in 2007, the last year before the financial panic. That’s a pittance compared to the trillion-plus Obama deficits.

The debt-ceiling debate has also revealed the truth of Social Security’s weakness.

When President Obama blurted out that he couldn’t ensure the delivery of benefit checks if we hit the debt ceiling, he blew up the myth that Social Security is backed up by a trust fund.

With that remark, Obama acknowledged there’s nothing in the trust fund that can be used to pay for checks. Benefit checks aren’t paid out of the trust fund. They’re paid out of current revenue.

The debate has also been a test for Republicans, who face the real risk of overplaying their hand. During a recent vacation, I listened frequently to talk radio. The message I heard was that this is Armageddon, this is where the line must be drawn, this is where we stop the fiscal madness.

Wrong. This is one skirmish in a very long struggle.

I heard a lot of enthusiastic talk about a balanced budget amendment, but little consideration of the consequences. Wouldn’t such an amendment open the door for the courts to dictate a huge proportion of our spending and taxation?

Republicans should stay focused on the long term. They should recognize that while independents may be increasingly unhappy with Obama and the Democrats, many still aren’t ready to sign up as loyal Republicans.

The nation needs serious entitlement reform, and for that you need more than control of the House. You need the presidency. The debate over how to restructure the safety net will play out for many years. If the GOP overreaches now, a negative voter reaction would severely diminish its capacity to shape this critical debate.

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