Newt Gingrich offers big ideas for Social Security, Medicare and judicial branch


Republican presidential candidate, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich speaks at Tommy's Ham House, Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011, in Greenville , S.C. (Richard Shiro/AP)
December 1, 2011

This is America under President Gingrich:

There are two Social Security systems — one old, one new, running side by side. There are two tax systems and two versions of Medicare. Immigration decisions are handled by citizen councils spread across the country.

And in the White House is a president who is eager to do battle with the judicial branch.

He can fire federal judges with whom he disagrees, and some new laws are written so that they cannot be reviewed by the courts.

These are all concepts of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), the idea factory who is now a front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination. If implemented, they would add up to a government in the mold of Gingrich himself: ambitious, confrontational and complicated, with an expansive faith in the free market to solve society’s problems.

“It’s clear the country is talking to itself. And it’s clear that across the country, people are saying, you know, ‘I think we need Newt Gingrich,’ ” the candidate said Wednesday on Fox News Channel. “ ‘We need somebody with very substantial big ideas.’ ”

A review of Gingrich’s recent statements and debate arguments turns up more than 70 ideas, some substantial and others less so. They cover such topics as offshore drilling, Iran and child labor.

Some hew closely to conservative GOP orthodoxy. Others urge a vast overhaul of federal benefit programs, using a two-track approach that would allow people to choose between old and new ideas. And others envision a historic reshaping of the way the U.S. government operates, largely by stripping the Supreme Court of its powers.

There are doubts about whether Gingrich’s big ideas could work. If he followed through on his plans to defy the high court, Gingrich could plunge the country into a constitutional crisis by putting it on shaky legal ground.

Many conservative scholars worry that Gingrich’s ideas may make already byzantine federal benefits programs even more complex.

“It’s the kind of thing that sounds right, maybe, when you sit on your couch and hear it,” said Steven Camarota, the research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tougher immigration enforcement.

He was talking about Gingrich’s idea to create local citizen boards, modeled on the boards that evaluated World War II draftees, to decide whether illegal immigrants should stay or go.

“But boy,” Camarota said, “when you take it all apart and think about how all this works in practice, it’s like, ‘ugh.’ ”

In an interview this week, Gingrich rejected the notion that he would create a larger, more unwieldy government.

“I have lots of ideas. But I don’t think you maniacally walk in and say, ‘Everything is in one direction,’ ” he said. As speaker, he said, “I increased spending on intelligence — against the Clinton administration desire — by $1 billion while fighting over balancing the federal budget. So you can have a mixed bag.”

Some of those 70-plus ideas are standard conservative fare, such as repealing President Obama’s health-care law and abolishing the Energy Department. Others are less so.

Gingrich once supported a version of an “individual mandate” to buy health insurance — a provision in the health-care law that conservatives despise. He also once appeared with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in an ad calling for government action on climate change.

Gingrich now says he opposes the individual mandate and regrets the ad. Those position shifts leave some conservatives wary.

“Most of his ideas are very good. He’s an advocate of limited government and free-market solutions — except when he’s not,” said former congressman Chris Chocola (R-Ind.), head of the pro-business Club for Growth. His group said Gingrich’s record “leads one to be rather unsure what kind of president Newt Gingrich would be.”

In this campaign, Gingrich’s biggest idea may be that the ugliest fights in Washington — over Social Security, Medicare and the tax code — don’t have to be fights at all.

Instead, he would set up two of each system and let people choose. Gingrich is confident that, in every case, people would flock to the conservative alternative.

“It is a political calculation. But it’s also a recognition of the virtue of these reforms,” said Peter Ferrara, a scholar at the conservative Heartland Institute, who helped Gingrich craft his ideas. “He can trust the people to embrace these reforms, so that politically it doesn’t look threatening.”

On Social Security, Gingrich would keep the current system, into which people pay taxes while they work and then receive government payments when they retire. But he would offer another choice. It would allow people to put their money into personal accounts, to be invested in the private market.

Gingrich says those investments would be government-approved and safe. But what if they went bad and the money was lost? Gingrich, copying a plan that GOP lawmakers proposed in 2005, offers a guarantee: The government would step in and pay regular Social Security benefits.

That could create a dangerous temptation, some experts say.

“The rational person would go for the riskiest possible investment,” said Andrew Biggs, who was an official in the George W. Bush administration and is now at the American Enterprise Institute. If many investments fail at once, the government might suddenly face a huge shortfall, he said, adding: “You’re essentially taking on a very expensive obligation you don’t understand.”

On Medicare, Gingrich proposes a similar two-track system.

People could stay in the current system, in which the government covers all of their health insurance. Or they could choose a new one, similar to the privatization plan that was approved by the GOP-led House this year and shot down by the Democratic-controlled Senate. Under that alternative, retirees would buy private insurance and the government would cover part of the cost.

The same approach would apply to taxes. The current tax code would stay in place, but taxpayers could choose to pay a 15 percent flat rate, with limited deductions.

The two-of-everything model gives some conservatives pause, because it already costs so much to operate one of each program. The administrative costs for Social Security were $6.5  billion last year.

The essence of a real deficit-cutting plan is that “someone’s going to say no,” said Michael Tanner of the libertarian Cato Institute. “And Newt’s created a plan where no one’s going to say no,” he said. “ ‘I’m going to give you more choices, but nobody’s going to be worse off.’ And that’s just fantasy.”

Asked whether this approach would result in an expansion of government bureaucracy, Gingrich has a two-part answer.

“Yeah, but a very minor one,” he said. He cited, as a model, a program in Chile in which a two-track retirement-account system was outsourced to private companies. “It’s essentially a privatized management structure, and you then have a very small federal overview board.”

Gingrich also has offered a detailed outline of his plan to rein in the judicial branch. He says that the nation’s founders wanted this to be the weakest of the three branches.

“Everything that I have asserted has historic precedent,” he said this week, adding: “This is a fight we want.”

One of Gingrich’s ideas is effectively to fire federal judges — even an entire appellate court.

“This court does not meet. It will not be appropriated for. Go home,” he told an audience in Iowa, outlining the plan. As targets, he has listed a liberal-leaning appeals court and a judge in Texas who banned formal prayer at a high school graduation ceremony (a decision that was later overturned). “I would do no more than eliminate Judge [Fred] Biery in San Antonio and the 9th Circuit.”

The problem, legal scholars say, is that the Constitution appears to say that judges can’t be fired: They serve for life, unless impeached. And it also says Congress can’t cut their pay.

Also, Gingrich has laid out plans to bypass the Supreme Court entirely. He said he would instruct the executive branch to ignore recent decisions that granted more rights to detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and he says that Congress can declare certain new laws unreviewable by the Supreme Court.

“You could repass [the Defense of Marriage Act] and make it not appealable to the court, period,” he said in a forum in Iowa. In a legal sense, that might be possible, scholars say. There is a provision in the Constitution that allows Congress to limit the court’s jurisdiction.

But that power has been rarely used, because it could set a precedent — one that Gingrich and other Republicans might regret.

Now, conservatives hope the Supreme Court will give them a victory next year by striking down Obama’s health-care law. But what if Democrats, following Gingrich’s logic, had simply declared thatlaw not appeal-able?

“Be careful what you ask for,” said Roger Pilon, a legal scholar at the Cato Institute. “You may get it.”

Staff writer Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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