Cover Story

'It's time we had a fact-based conversation'

"'It's time we had a fact-based conversation'" Continued...

Issue: "Tick, tick, tick ...," May 7, 2011

That's why Huizenga said it's important for the new House to go ahead and tackle spending changes despite likely pushback from the Democratic-led Senate and veto threats from President Obama: "We need to stake our territory. . . . In politics we prove every day that man is depraved, sinful, fallen, and evil. But we also know that God's got a plan."

Mathematically, the problem of entitlements is not all that difficult: People are living longer and fewer workers are supporting each retiree. Conservatives support gradually raising the retirement age for Social Security and the eligibility age for Medicare. If both kicked in at age 70, Medicare would see $140 billion in savings and Social Security $247 billion in savings annually by 2030. Many conservatives also support giving reduced entitlement benefits to wealthier Americans. Warren Buffet, for example, would not get a Social Security check.

Politically, though, the challenge is great. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey showed fewer than one in four Americans supporting significant changes to Social Security or Medicare. This reluctance crosses party lines and age ranges: By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, Tea Party members opposed cuts to Social Security.

But the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler says education is the key. He tells a story about one 80-year-old's reaction to a recent discussion of entitlements at Ohio State University. The man walked to a microphone and said he had spent the presentation sitting beside a university student who told him about his mounting student debt.

"I paid into Social Security," the man said. "I'm entitled to it. But I'd be willing to actually share it with this young man. I shouldn't get all of this if it means that this young man is indebted all of his life because of it."

The man had two conditions: that the federal government did not take the savings from reduced benefits and spend it elsewhere and that he would be taken care of if faced with a serious illness. "When you lay out the facts to people they seem to be willing to give up some of their entitlements for their grandkids," said Butler, who added he got similar reactions from places as left-leaning as Berkley, Calif. "Showing politicians that they can actually talk about these issues is crucial."

But some lawmakers seem to be entrenched in the belief that promises to protect entitlements will pay off in the 2012 elections. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would be willing to look at Social Security reform but not for another two decades. And Obama's April 13 address on budget reform had the sound of a campaign speech more than a policy proposal. He skewered Republican budget plans as offering a "deeply pessimistic" future for America. "We have to use a scalpel and not a machete to reduce the deficit," Obama said.

Days later the Republican-led House did pass a budget blueprint that would cut $6 trillion in spending over the next decade. While promising no changes to people 55 and over, the plan would eventually overhaul Medicare: The government would no longer directly pay medical bills-a practice that does little to encourage efficiency. Instead, federal subsidies would help Medicare patients purchase private insurance plans where competition lowers prices.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, the author of the plan, argued that "trying to protect the government's major entitlement programs by maintaining the status quo is, in fact, the surest way to destroy them." His plan would also transform the federal portion of Medicaid payments into block grants for states. This would give states more flexibility in providing care to the poor while ending the current competitive grant system that leads to a "spend it or lose it" mindset among state officials.

Still, resolutions by one party are unlikely to resolve the problem. Former Republican Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon, who chaired the Finance Committee during the budget debates of the mid-1980s, said political restraints tied to the approaching election year mean the "only hope for seeing any significant entitlement reform is that both parties do it and neither party takes the lead."

"The crisis is upon us," he said at a recent budget forum on Capitol Hill. "But I don't sense Congress is there yet, and I don't sense they will be there."

The fact that Obama's high-profile budget speech was so light on specifics seems to support Packwood's fears that a grand bargain on the budget will be elusive.

But Huizenga and other GOP freshmen say they are there. They may not have the same bully pulpit as the president, but they are going on their own fiscal wake-up tours.

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