Tim Pawlenty’s losing bet: Obama’s had no entitlement proposals

at 11:12 AM ET, 06/29/2012

“We have in the White House now the president of the United States, the leader of our nation, who has not put out any specific proposals on some of the most pressing issues of the day. For example, where is President Obama’s specific proposal on reforming Medicaid and Medicare? Anyone who understands the budget crisis facing this country understands that entitlements have to be talked about. And we need a leader to address that in detail.

I’ll come to your house, Bob Schieffer, and mow your lawn if you can find President Obama`s specific proposals on reforming entitlements in this country.”

— Tim Pawlenty on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” June 24, 2012

In an interview on ”Face the Nation” Sunday, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty issued a light-hearted but bold challenge while suggesting that President Obama hasn’t done anything to address the skyrocketing costs of entitlement programs. (His remarks begin at the 5:45 mark of the video).

Host Bob Schieffer laughed about the wager, noting that he lives in an apartment and wouldn’t be able to hold Pawlenty accountable.

We’re not going to let his guest off the hook so easily.

Let’s take a look at Obama’s record on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to determine whether the president has made any “specific proposals” for reforms during his tenure.

The Facts

We’ll deal with Medicare and Medicaid first, since Pawlenty named those entitlements during his interview. Obama didn’t just propose changes to those programs; he enacted some of them by signing the Affordable Care Act — which the Supreme Court upheld this week.

Regarding Medicare, we’ve mentioned in previous columns that the health-care law will reduce costs by about $500 billion over 10 years, mostly by lowering payments to health-care providers and raising additional revenue through higher payroll taxes for some people.

The Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services has estimated that the reforms will extend Medicare’s solvency until 2024, whereas the Medicare trust fund was expected to run short by 2016 without the law.

The health-care law also calls for a new Independent Payment Advisory Board that would make recommendations for providing better care at lower costs, theoretically holding down Medicare costs in the long term. This group would essentially determine what types of care should qualify for reimbursement. Some administration opponents, such as former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, have incorrectly labeled the board a “death panel.”

For what it’s worth, opponents of the Affordable Care Act argue that the law creates a brand-new entitlement by allowing more people to qualify for government-subsidized health coverage. But that is a different matter than Pawlenty’s claim that Obama has done nothing on existing entitlements.

As for Medicaid, the health-care law expands eligibility to all citizens under the age of 65 who fall at or below 133 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, adds new fraud- and abuse-prevention measures, increases services for beneficiaries and provides incentives for preventive care. A March report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the changes will boost program costs by $795 billion over 11 years.

This doesn’t constitute the type of reform that most Republicans are looking for as they demand spending reductions, but a CBO report says that the reform law as a whole will reduce deficits over time rather than increase them.

On to Social Security. The Obama administration hasn’t publicly proposed any reforms for that program, though Obama did so during the 2008 campaign. But numerous media outlets, including The Washington Post, have reported that he discussed adjusting the formula for determining benefit levels while trying to negotiate a deal with Republicans on raising of the nation’s debt ceiling.

Some congressional Democrats suggested at the time that the proposal was nothing more than a bargaining strategy that would show Obama’s willingness to compromise and ultimately focus attention on the GOP resistance to tax increases. Nonetheless, it appears that the offer was there for Republicans to work with.

The Mitt Romney campaign, which handles Pawlenty’s media affairs relating to the presidential race, said the Obama administration has acknowledged it hasn’t proposed a long-term solution for entitlements. Spokesman Ryan Williams said Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner acknowledged as much while testifying before the House Budget Committee about the president’s 2013 budget.

“You are right to say we’re not coming before you today to say we have a definitive solution to that long-term problem,” Geithner told Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in reference to entitlement costs. “But what we do know is we don’t like yours, because what yours would do is put an undue burden on a middle-income seniors and substantially raise the burden on them for rising health-care costs.”

Geithner also said the president’s budget would reduce deficits over the next 10 years — which covers the window that most executive budgets address — and “would put us in a much better position to meet those [long-term] challenges.”

The Pinocchio Test

Pawlenty put his lawn-mowing services on the line, challenging Schieffer to name any specific proposal from the president for entitlement reform. His bet suggested that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything in that regard, but we found obvious contradictions — even if the administration hasn’t proposed permanent solutions.

The president never publicly offered a plan to reform Social Security, but by most accounts he did offer to adjust the benefit formula while he was haggling with Republicans over the debt ceiling.

As for Medicare and Medicaid, Obama hasn’t proposed anything new to make the programs permanently solvent, but he did implement significant reforms with the Affordable Care Act. As such, it’s not fair to suggest that he hasn’t proposed or accomplished anything on entitlement reform.

Pawlenty’s challenge sounds a lot like a bluff in light of the facts. Perhaps he knew that the yard-less Schieffer couldn’t collect the spoils. The former governor earns two Pinocchios for his interview comments.

Two Pinocchios

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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