03/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let's Make a Deal Politics

As Congress and the Obama administration confront a list of unparalleled economic challenges, it's clear that serious economic change is on the way, not just as a political slogan but as a fiscal necessity.

Yet, I find myself wondering in this era of change why are so many in Washington still using the same flawed "entitlement reform" language and leftover talking points from the Bush administration when talking about these economic challenges?

Contrary to the anti-entitlement crowd's rhetoric, we cannot balance our budget or clear our red ink on the backs of Social Security and Medicare. Lumping Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid together under the mantel of "entitlement reform" was a political strategy created by conservatives and fiscal hawks to paint a much scarier fiscal picture and build a sense of crisis that ignores the unique strengths, challenges and solutions facing these very different programs.

In fact, according to analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), if every so-called "entitlement" in the federal budget were repealed outright -- eliminating Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other critical programs -- but nothing were done to slow the growth in health care costs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. It is clear America does not face an entitlement crisis; it faces a health care financing problem.

If Congress is serious about preserving these programs (and I believe most members are) it's time to ditch the political spin, decouple these programs in our language and talk about the Social Security and Medicare programs on their own terms. Budget Director, Peter Orszag understands this. When asked about "entitlement reform" he always provides an assessment for Social Security and one for Medicare. That's because, as much as the anti-entitlement crowd would like to us to believe otherwise, we're not facing an "entitlement crisis". We're facing a healthcare crisis that is burdening our entire economy, not just Medicare. Social Security, as a retirement program, faces completely different long-term challenges which don't come close to the "crisis" depiction of some. In fact, Orszag has told the Senate Budget Committee

We do a disservice by uniting the health care issue with the aging issue.

The rate at which health care costs grow relative to income is the most important determinant of the long-term fiscal balance; it exerts a significantly larger influence on the budget over the long term than other commonly cited factors, such as the aging of the population.

Let's leave the loaded political language of "entitlement reform" in the dustbin of the Bush administration's failed Social Security and Medicare legacy. When participants in the upcoming "Fiscal Summit" convene, they must first talk about the urgency of healthcare reform and define the role Medicare will play in that debate. Then, let's be accurate about Social Security and the modest and manageable changes that will be needed to preserve and strengthen that program for our children and grandchildren.

Social Security and Medicare did not bring us to this economic precipice or turn our budget surplus into record debt in just eight years. These programs should not be used as a distraction allowing fiscal summit leaders to ignore the failed economic policies that have actually caused this crisis. We must learn from this past to chart a new path for our future.

For many Americans, Social Security and Medicare have provided their only economic stability during this very scary time. Millions of people have seen their savings depleted, home equity disappear, and healthcare costs skyrocket beyond their means. This underscores why we should be strengthening these programs for the long-term not cutting them in the same old Washington version of "Let's Make a Deal".