CNN Money | March 7, 2011
If there is one thing we know in "Budgetworld," it's that the largest entitlement programs have to be reformed. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are growing at unsustainable levels because of the aging population and growing health care costs.
Without changes, entitlements will squeeze out other spending priorities. They will push up tax rates, and they will create a drag on the economy. Basically, they will bust the budget.
Social Security is the easiest to fix since, unlike health care, we actually know what will work: It boils down to some combination of benefit reductions and revenue increases.
And the sooner the better. As the Social Security trustees say year after year: "The projected trust fund shortfalls should be addressed in a timely way so that necessary changes can be phased in gradually and workers can be given time to plan for them."
Tough to argue with that. Yet, progress has been, well, nonexistent.
Could this year be different? Maybe.
There does appear to be more momentum for serious entitlement reform. Yet getting down to the business of what specific changes to make is frustratingly slow going.
Right now Congress and the White House are acting like fifth graders at the school dance: "You go first. No, you go first." Next thing you know, the boys and girls are in a shoving match! (Folks, don't try this at your offices; it is unlikely to be well-received.)
House Speaker John Boehner has said he's ready to tackle the problem, but he hasn't offered specific proposals. And President Obama's budget made only a nod toward Social Security reform, laying out some rather weak principles:
-- Any reform should strengthen Social Security for future generations and restore long-term solvency. OK, good.
-- The administration will oppose any measures that privatize or weaken Social Security. Hmmm. So that's what not to do.
-- While all measures to strengthen solvency should be on the table, the administration will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations. More on what not to do.
-- Basic benefits should not be reduced for current beneficiaries. Seriously, more on what not to do?
-- Reform should strengthen retirement security for the most vulnerable, including low-income seniors. I agree, but that will actually cost money.
-- Reform should maintain robust disability and survivors' benefits. Yup, another non-suggestion for fixing the system.
It's like starting the interview for a new job by insisting on a high salary, lots of perks, a corner office and easy assignments ... but insisting that everything else is on the table.
The administration's excuse: Any real recommendations would quickly become political targets, and that would actually make reforming Social Security more difficult. While they might have a point, it's tough to see how this strategy meets the test of leadership.
House Republicans have indicated they plan to include some entitlement reforms in their budget.
And Rep. Cynthia Lummis, a Wyoming Republican elected in 2008, just offered a plan to slowly, slowly, increase the retirement age so that today's four-year-olds would retire at 70 instead of 67. I talked it over with my young daughter, and she's OK with it; no need for histrionics on her behalf.
The next step is for policymakers to come out with a plan that would not only increase the retirement age but also reduce promised benefits for the reasonably well-off, fix how benefits are indexed for inflation and raise revenue.
None of this will be that hard. In fact, future retirees will still collect more than those today do, and we can even afford to increase benefits a bit for those who depend on Social Security the most.
If an initial plan isn't bipartisan, and Republicans are left to go it alone, it is likely they will offer Social Security reform plans that only cut spending. Is that where we should end up? No. Revenues will have to be part of the fix, but hey, anything at this point is better than nothing.
The real test now will be how the White House responds to whatever is offered by the Republicans.
If the president chooses to go the "see, I told you so, those guys just want to steal granny's benefits" route -- rather than the "that's one approach, how about this?" option -- Social Security reform will fail again.
But if instead he acknowledges that changes have to be made, congratulates those who are courageous enough to get specific and starts real bipartisan discussions, we just may be on to something.
It is time for both sides to agree to a cease fire. Either embrace the other side's proposals or offer alternatives. Don't attack them.
Imagine what could get done if those who profess to care so much about Social Security worked together on a plan to save it.