THE BLOG
11/16/2009 02:11 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Passing the Buck to an Entitlement Commission

In classic Washington style, so-called fiscal hawks in Congress have selectively redefined our debt and deficit problem in order to fit their preconceived solutions -- cutting Social Security and Medicare. Rather than address the real causes of our national debt including; a decade of borrow and spend policies, skyrocketing health care costs, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and two unfunded wars these fiscal hawks are intent on making Social Security and Medicare pay the price. Some in Congress want to create an entitlement commission. This certainly isn't a new idea but this time the entitlement commission will have a new name, becoming a budget commission or deficit commission, taking advantage of the average American's outrage at the economic mess Wall Street greed helped fuel. Ultimately, these so-called fiscal hawks hope an entitlement commission can convince Americans the best way to fix a budget mess unrelated to Social Security, and Medicare, is to cut Social Security and Medicare. Remarkably, this strategy is gaining traction , especially in the Senate.

Anti-entitlement groups like the Concord Coalition and the Peterson Foundation have spent millions of dollars (promising to ultimately spend a billion) persuading Congress that our nation's most effective government programs are to blame for our current budget woes. In a tragically ironic twist, fiscal conservatives are now using the results of their failed economic policies of the past (including record debt, deficits, and economic recession) as justification for cutting the very programs that have saved millions of Americans.

Under most of the commission proposals being considered, a working group of current Congressional Members and members of the Administration would draft legislation affecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The group's recommendations would be issued next year and be forced through Congress under extremely short timelines with no opportunity for amendments. Pushing through changes this important to millions of Americans ultimately disenfranchises voters and hurts the political process. Seniors' advocates agree with the goal of strengthening Social Security and Medicare; however, we strongly disagree with the process created by this commission proposal. Major restructuring of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid has never been attempted in a single piece of legislation, and for good reason: these programs encompass significantly different economic issues and touch virtually every facet of American life. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as the construction of our entire system of federal taxation, would be placed in the hands of a group of only 15 people who may or may not have significant experience in the breadth of issues they encompass. Congressional Committees of jurisdiction, which have cultivated detailed knowledge of the programs and the needs of their beneficiaries over decades, would be relegated to being bystanders in the process.

As fiscal hawks decry our current budget situation, they seldom mention the role tax cuts play in the equation. They don't talk about the massive cuts given primarily to the richest 1% of Americans in 2001 and 2003, estimated to cost $3.4 trillion dollars over the next decade. In fact, many of Congress' deficit hawks want to make those tax cuts permanent. Most of those who bemoan our budget deficit situation the loudest are also opposed to health care reform. The "we can't afford Social Security and Medicare" crowd ignores the reality of skyrocketing healthcare costs nationwide and how those costs are hurting our overall economy, not just the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Let's be clear here, entitlement costs did not create our current budget deficit. In fact, analysis of projections by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), shows if every entitlement in the federal budget were repealed outright eliminating Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other critical programs but nothing were done to slow the growth in health care costs overall, we would still find ourselves spending almost 70 percent of the nation's wealth on health care by 2082. On the other hand, if the rate of growth in overall health care is restrained so it is no longer growing faster than the rest of the economy, Medicare's long-range financial deficit could be cut by well over one-half.

Less than 20% of the combined shortfall projected in Medicare and Social Security over the next 75 years is in the Social Security program. Contrary to the popular rhetoric, Social Security's long-term funding gap is both modest and manageable. We don't need deep cuts in benefits to achieve long-term solvency in Social Security. In contrast, skyrocketing health care expenses nationwide drive Medicare's costs. Without comprehensive health care reform, cuts in Medicare alone will simply shift those costs onto seniors. Out-of-pocket health care expenses for the elderly are already projected to consume half of the average Social Security check by the year 2040.

In spite of all the talk at this week's Senate Budget Committee hearing on commissions about the need for a "fair and balanced" approach, it's important to note that every one of the 10 witnesses invited to testify supports the creation of a commission. Not a single witness opposed to the commission idea was even invited. It's hard to have much faith in a process that ignores the opposing viewpoint from the get-go. We've seen these so-called "bi-partisan" commissions before, stacked with members who share the same view regardless of their party affiliation. Remember President Bush's bi-partisan Social Security Commission, filled with private account advocates, which not surprisingly came up with three privatization plans?

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has written Congress reminding them that Social Security did not create our current federal debt and deficit crisis. There are many other respected policy analysts who join us in opposing the creation of an entitlement commission. Seven staff members of the 1983 National Commission on Social Security Reform (also known as the Greenspan Commission) provided their argument against current commission proposals in a statement to the Senate Budget committee.

This entitlement commission proposal is fatally flawed. Restrictive timelines, no amendments and limited debate is not the way to address programs touching virtually every American family. No doubt about it, our nation is paying the price for many years of failed economic policies and Americans want Washington to find the fiscal discipline needed to clean it up. However, Congress should not subcontract it's responsibilities to an appointed body to make what's likely to be difficult and unpopular choices. Sure, it's a tough job but this is what we've elected them, all of them, to do-isn't it?