Monday, October 29, 2007

Thompson Alone Tackles Entitlements

The headline in the Christian Science Monitor is the sort any candidate would dream of.

As baby boomers enter the starting gate into retirement, the cost of America's entitlement programs – foremost, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid – is projected to balloon to levels that are unsustainable.

Already, those three programs make up 40 percent of the federal budget. If reforms are not enacted, Social Security will eventually go bust; in 40 years, on the current path, the two medical programs alone could equal the size of today's entire federal budget according to the US Government Accountability Office...

"The one thing that all the experts agree on … is that we're in an unsustainable position economically with regard to these programs," he recently told the anti-tax Club for Growth. "You'd think that would be the biggest thing we could talk about, other than national security. So we've got to talk about it."

Thompson intends to unveil a plan for entitlement reform in the coming weeks, according to his spokesman, but he has already been floating ideas, such as slowing the rate of Social Security benefit increases – a move that would, in effect, cut benefits. On Medicare, he suggests increasing fees for upper-income beneficiaries. To imply such moves puts Thompson in danger of touching the so-called "third rail" of politics – and he acknowledged that risk in a speech last month he gave to The Club For Growth.

But he gets credit, at least, from deficit hawks, who have been touring the country trying to educate the public on the structural problems in Social Security and Medicare. "There is an opportunity for leadership on this issue, because people are not expecting politicians to tell them the truth on this," says Bob Bixby, executive director of the anti-deficit Concord Coalition. "And while you would certainly catch fire from your opponents by putting forth specifics, I think the public would respect that person as a leader for taking a position."

Much as I admire Senator Thompson for his stand on the issue, I would disagree with him on the usefulness of a commission. I believe that a bipartisan fix for runaway entitlement spending is essential, since neither party will take the political blame for a fix that is bound to leave some voters angry. While it's possible that Democrats would vote for President Thompson's plan, it's far more likely that the product of a bipartisan commission would get their endorsement. Thus a commission can serve a valuable role in increasing support for the fix.

Still, Senator Thompson deserves credit for stepping up on this issue. It will endear him to fiscal conservatives.

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