DEMOCRATS LIKE TO say that they are for “balance” in the fiscal debate and that Republicans favor spending cuts. That argument is increasingly difficult to credit.
Since the election last month, a few modest proposals have been floated to slow the growth in entitlement spending. None of these would fix the problem, but they would at least acknowledge that a problem exists. One by one, the ostensible advocates of balance have shot them down, portraying each in turn as a mortal threat to the poor or the aged.
Nudging the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, which President Obama supported last year? Unconscionable. Changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated, which Mr. Obama also supported? Brutally unfair to veterans and seniors. Reform of Medicaid provider taxes, which liberal Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) only days ago described as a “charade” used by states to jack up funding from Washington? Unthinkable, the White House now says:In fact, with the Supreme Court having struck down a facet of Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act involving Medicaid, nothing in that program can be touched. And, while they’re at it, put Social Security off the table, too. We’re asked to accept the mythology that, though the pension and disability program is facing ever-widening shortfalls, it isn’t contributing to the overall deficit.
We’ve said time and again that revenue must rise. The latest Republican position on taxes, while an improvement, remains inadequate. GOP leaders now admit the need for more revenue, but they refuse to say how they would obtain it. Given the political difficulty of limiting any deduction or loophole, their supposed commitment to tax reform isn’t worth much without specifics.
But the underlying fiscal problem is that federal expenditures are slated to rise faster than economic growth because of rising health-care costs and an aging population. The long-term drivers are Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and subsidies for the health-care exchanges established by the Affordable Care Act.
That’s not a partisan statement. It is reality. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, without reform, spending on Social Security and federal health-care programs will rise from 10 percent of gross domestic product today to 16 percent 25 years from now. If that sounds manageable, consider this: Over the past 40 years, the entire federal budget has averaged 18.5 percent of GDP.
The cartoon version of the fight is that Democrats want to soak the rich, and Republicans want to slash the poor. But here’s the problem: There’s no way for either of them to solve this problem without affecting the middle class, which in the end will have to pay more and accept something less than what has been promised. Neither party likes either side of that equation.
There are better and worse ways to bend the entitlement curve. Raise the Medicare age, but shield the neediest seniors. If you think Republicans are proposing the wrong way to adjust the cost-of-living index, finance expert Robert C. Pozen has proposed a progressive alternative.
But there’s no way to fix America’s problem without doing something on entitlements. If the Democrats — and Mr. Obama, in particular — don’t get more seriously into that discussion, they have no standing to complain about the Republicans’ lack of balance.