Spring Forecast? It's Always Gloomy.

Cabinet officials do their best impression of portraying a potential scenario regarding the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, at a news conference on Tuesday. Video by Emily Freifeld/washingtonpost.com
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The rites of spring have returned to the capital. The daffodils are blooming. The Easter eggs are rolling. The perch are running. And members of the Bush Cabinet are warning about entitlement calamity.

"Rising costs will drive government spending to unprecedented levels, consume nearly all projected federal revenues and threaten America's future prosperity," a distressed Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson announced at a news conference yesterday afternoon.

"Last year we issued a funding warning, and we're doing so again this year," added Mike Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services.

Still not alarmed? "This will trigger -- and I want to emphasize again, as Secretary Leavitt has said -- this will trigger a Medicare funding warning," contributed Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.

Speaking last on this panel of panic assembled at the Treasury Department, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue had a high bar of fear to clear -- but he did it with ease. "Enormous challenges . . . unsustainable . . . rapidly growing deficits . . . mounting pressure . . . savings rate has plummeted . . . millions of Americans individually at risk."

The quartet made it a four-alarm fire, yet even the participants acknowledged that their agitation had become a bit ceremonial. One day each spring, administration officials release the latest annual reports on Social Security and Medicare and warn that the programs will go bust without urgent government intervention. The administration officials, along with their counterparts in Congress, then spend the rest of the year achieving nothing to fix the problem.

In spring 2007, they announced that the Medicare trust fund would run out in 2019 and Social Security in 2041. Yesterday, they announced that the Medicare trust fund would run out in 2019 and Social Security in 2041.

"Dire warnings have become a seasonal occurrence," acknowledged Leavitt. "I noted today in Washington, D.C., that the cherry blossoms are out. They started to bloom today. It's part of nature's rhythm, and that's the way spring is in Washington. We see the cherry blossoms and hear Medicare warnings. The cherry blossoms go away, and nothing happens with Medicare."

It's a bit of an exaggeration to say nothing happens with Medicare. Actually, it gets worse. The projected solvency of Medicare has shrunk by six years during President Bush's tenure. Bush's prescription drug benefit has added another $915 billion in costs to the Medicare program -- although Leavitt cheerfully pointed out yesterday that the hole Bush created is "about $117 billion less than we felt it would be last summer."

Though Democrats dispute the urgency and magnitude of Social Security's problems, there can be no doubt about Medicare's woes; its payouts are forecast to exceed tax revenue starting this year. But the rest of official Washington was too busy with other matters yesterday to heed the alarm.

"I've got the fishing champs of this year," the president announced yesterday in the Oval Office, where he was hosting the Bassmaster angling champions. The White House helpfully released a transcript.

"I've got to say that President Bush is actually a very good fisherman," attested Alton Jones, the men's champ.

"I would be glad to take you any day on Toledo Bend," said Judy Wong, the women's winner.

Bush: "That's good."

Wong: "And bring Laura as well."

Added the president, "I'm a good fisherman; sometimes I'm a good catcher-man."

The transcript included no mention of Social Security or Medicare. Neither did the president raise the matter of the Social Security and Medicare reports during his subsequent meeting with the king of Bahrain or his celebration of Greek independence day. Bush, who failed a few years ago in his attempt to privatize part of Social Security, delegated the alarm assignment to his new budget director, Jim Nussle, who blamed the whole thing on Democrats.

That gave little support to Paulson and his colleagues, who stood yesterday on the same stage, in the same room of the Treasury Department, in front of the same green curtain where administration officials have stood each spring in recent years to deliver the same message.

"Action needs to be taken," Chao warned.

"Time is of the essence," Paulson warned.

Apparently so. In their haste to fix Social Security and Medicare, the officials spoke for only 12 minutes, then fielded questions for exactly two minutes more.

One reporter asked about the impact of the prescription drug benefit. "That will be covered in a technical briefing," came the answer. Another reporter asked about the impact of immigration. The officials again recommended a "technical briefing."

Several more hands were raised, but Paulson was done. "Okay, thank you all very much," he said, then led his colleagues from the room. The Cherry Blossom Festival may last two weeks, but the annual sounding of the entitlement alarms lasts only 14 minutes.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company