Time to admit defeat on Social Security

BY DAN K. THOMASSON

Holy Methuselah, Mr. President, not another bipartisan commission to study the impact of aging baby boomers on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid!

Well, of course not. But one has to propose something when faced with giving a State of the Union message that demands inclusion of at least a passing reference to the nation’s most serious domestic problem, the skyrocketing cost of entitlements. It’s a good, old Oval Office gambit. When the eventuality of solving a dilemma shows little or no promise of success, call for another cross-party panel to find solutions and issue recommendations that more than likely will go unheeded, giving you enough ammunition to blame your critics for their failure.

So President Bush did exactly that with the complete understanding that reforms in these politically volatile programs just aren’t going to happen. Despite what his Democratic detractors say, he isn’t stupid. After nearly a year of trying in vain to use his bully pulpit to engender enough support for reforming Social Security, he seems to have gotten the message: Congress, for a lame-duck chief executive at least _ and probably no one else, either, isn’t budging on this issue in any meaningful way.

The Democrats made that pretty clear during the speech the other night when they jumped up cheering when the president noted that Congress had failed to act on the programs. Nor is there likely to be another big-time panel to study what has been studied to death. There eventually may be some form of private savings accounts for Social Security, the key provision of Bush’s reform proposals, but they are a long way down the road that runs from now to 2040 when the old age survivors’ fund will face bankruptcy.

The lack of immediacy in the Social Security problem is ready-made for a Congress steeped in the tradition of solving only those crises two years or less away from becoming full-blown. When it comes to problems, Medicare and Medicaid are far more pressing, battered as they are with health-care costs that annually exceed the cost of living index by a large margin. The White House failure to recognize the need to deal with these programs before Social Security was nothing less than incompetent.

The potential crash of Medicare has been made more imminent by irresponsibly adding a huge new prescription drug benefit that would tack an estimated $750 billion to its cost over the next decade. Some experts believe that projected figure, which already has been revised upward at least twice since its passage, probably will top $1 trillion. While Congress would never let the program collapse, saving it becomes more difficult with every passing year, as the millions born immediately after World War II become collectors and not contributors.

The entitlements soon will be consuming 70 percent of the budget. And if the huge deficit is to be cut in half by 2009 as the president in his euphoria the other night predicted, where else can the Treasury get the money? It is a question to drive an economist mad and has on more than one occasion. One thing seems indisputable: Unless there is some way of holding down the seemingly unlimited greed of the health-care industry, from doctors to hospitals to drug companies to equipment manufacturers, there is no way this can be solved.

Bush’s call for a new study might under some circumstances be labeled cynical, issued with the knowledge that it probably has no more chance than most of his initiatives in a congressional atmosphere as viciously partisan as any since that just prior to the Civil War. But such ideas are not foreign to State of the Union messages. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson proposed term limits on House members and a variety of other government reorganizations that he knew had no chance whatsoever of being enacted.

Normally, a lame-duck president has a full two years to accomplish some of his priorities before his influence begins dimming with the approach of mid-term elections. Bush is the exception. Chances of his finding lasting solutions to old problems and meeting new ones effectively have been diminished earlier than usual in a final term. Some of that can be blamed on Iraq and some on an inept Republican congressional leadership, hit by scandal and too much emphasis on social issues. Oddly enough, while most television pundits saw little bipartisanship in his speech, ABC said its analysts found that Bill Clinton could have delivered 48 of the 62 paragraphs.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)

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