Medicare benefits, like Social Security and Medicaid benefits, have some legal protection because the program’s funding is supposed to automatically increase as the number of recipients increases. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been dead-set on overturning this protection for years, but overcoming the legal obstacle requires a high-power entity like a Commission.
New American Media, November 19, 2009
Last week, the Senate Budget Committee held a hearing on the proposal by its chair Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., and top GOP member, Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to create the Bipartisan Task Force for Responsible Fiscal Action. The Conrad-Gregg task force would have the power to “improve the long-term fiscal balance of the Federal Government, including the fiscal balance of Social Security and Medicare.”
Washington is littered with official commissions and their reports, but this one would be set on an unusually fast track. The 16 committee members would include key powers in Congress and the White House. Both houses of Congress would get the task force’s plan late in 2010 but only for an up-or-down vote—no debate or amendments allowed. Each house would have to pass the measure by a 60 percent supermajority.
The plot thickened last week, when four prominent Democrats, plus Sen. Joe (“I won’t wiggle on the health care filibuster”) Lieberman, threatened to halt approval of an unrelated but critical piece of legislation unless congress lets them have their way with the task force.
Progressive economist Dean Baker explained in a Nov. 16 blog on Huffington Post that Congress must pass legislation by the end of this year to raise the level of the national debt, a normal periodic process without which the U.S. economy would be in even more serious trouble. Accusing the senators of being “hostage takers,” Baker, who co-directs the Center for Economic and Policy Research, asserted, “This commission would be stacked with people who want to cut Social Security and Medicare.”
Conrad, Gregg and their purple cabal want to fast-track the task force’s recommendations, as Congress did with base closings, in order to force-feed unpopular choices through a presumably ineffectual national legislature. Proof, say some purple dogs, is in the failure of the health care reform to cobble together bills that would do anything to control medical costs. Therefore, we need extraordinary action to save the nation. From its representatives. Such as themselves. Those advocating for the normal democratic process in this case argue that Social Security and Medicare are not like local military bases that might never close otherwise because of tit-for-tat political horse trading over claims of lost jobs and so on.
One of the debt-limit bandits, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others have proffered differing commission proposals, but all focus on social insurance protections that provide health and income security to America’s aging masses – you know, the ones conservatives call Greedy Geezers when they want to cut benefits and the Greatest Generation when they pander to senior voters.
All claim to skewer the presumed sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare, while none actually involve “responsible fiscal action,” that is, placing all U.S. spending priorities on the table. Cases in point: Wasteful military spending (especially but not exclusively related to two wars) and tax loopholes for corporate America. Take the $33 billion giveaway in tax breaks to the building industry – please! – that was secreted inside the extension of unemployment benefits passed last week, exposed in Sunday’s New York Times by business columnist Gretchen Morgenson.
In the Daily Kos last Thursday (Nov. 12), Mcjoan wrote that Sen. Conrad and his “unsurprising bipartisan ‘gang”—13 senators, among them Democrats Evan Bayh, Ind., Dianne Feinstein, Calif., Mark Warner, Va., and kosher dog Lieberman—have “put new pressure on Speaker Nancy Pelosi to turn the power to trim entitlement benefits over to an independent commission.” Mcjoan urged, “Go for it, guys. Form your national suicide pact. Tell the country that you are demanding deep cuts in Social Security and Medicare, or else you will personally cause the United States debt to double.”
NYT reporter Jackie Calmes blogged (Nov. 10) that most members of Congress or budget analysts who now support the fast-track commission claim to be “reluctant converts . . . having concluded that Democrats and Republicans cannot reach the needed compromises on spending cuts and tax increases without some forcing mechanism.” Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nevada) oppose sidestepping debate, but House majority leader Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, issued a statement strongly supporting the task force idea.
Respected progressive blogger Digby, opining for Campaign for America’s Future, warned Nov. 12 that in Congress “talk of cutting Social Security right now would be hugely popular, so all the incumbent Democrats should be intensely interested in getting that issue on the agenda in an election year.”
She added, “Seriously, this is Shock Doctrine lunacy of the most obvious kind. Conrad and Bayh are out there saying it right up front. The government has poured trillions into the economy to save the banks and run useless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the old people and the poor are going to have to pay the price. That’s the way it works.”
The thin wonky line standing against the Senate elder abusers includes a group of eight veteran experts, who had prominent staff roles in the vaunted 1983 “Greenspan Commission,” credited with saving Social Security, sent a joint letter last to the Senate Budget committee, urging them not to pull an end-run around congressional debate.
“We all agree that social insurance programs have problems, especially Medicare,” said Nancy J. Altman, author of The Battle for Social Security (Wiley, 2005), who was a special assistant to Chairman Greenspan on the commission. However, Altman, serving as a “point person” for the distinguished group, emphasized that sidestepping the normal congressional process in the spirit of forcing “do-nothing” politicians to take necessary action could severely damage America’s already frayed safety net.
She noted that low-income elders, especially those of color, are particularly reliant on Social Security and Medicare. For instance, a recent report by the Hispanic Institute in Washington, D.C., notes that 50 percent of Latinas 65 or older in the U.S. rely on Social Security for 100 percent of their income, and 85 percent of them gain at least half of the income from Social Security. (Readers can see fact sheets on Social Securities demographic impact on different ethnic groups here.)
To justify suspending the normal legislative process, the quick-fixers point to a Government Accountability Office study showing that without change, the nation will hand the coming generations an “unsustainable” $63 trillion liability from federal entitlement programs by 2083. Others last week mentioned that amount as $37 trillion.
Reporters need to be wary about the scary numbers game. Not only are the figures suspect, but even the conservative think tanks (Heritage Foundation, Cato, etc.), which jiggered up the formula for these 2012 disaster-movie calculations, admit that most comes from projected Medicare costs. Medicare is absolutely in trouble – but because of overall rampant health inflation in the United States, not because too many baby boomers will have the temerity to grow old. (Note added: See Henry J. Aaron’s “There is No Entitlement Crisis; There Is a Health Care Funding Crisis”)
One might ask where or where to the purple dogs go so wrong. And who’s the mastermind behind this fiscal caper?
Altman observed that when Sens. Conrad and Gregg first introduced their bill in 2007, they included three letters of support from The Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Concord Coalition and the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget—all three them connected to and funded by Wall Street Pete Peterson.
The grandfatherly octogenarian Peterson, who was Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce and went on to found the private equity giant, The Blackstone Group, endowed his Peterson Foundation three years ago with $1 billion. Cutting and partially privatizing entitlement programs for elders is one of three stated missions of the tax-exempt organization. Peterson promptly hired then U.S. Comptroller General David Walker to head the foundation.
“This is really the Peterson Commission,” said anti-task force committee of eight in a background release. Peterson has spent almost three decades militating against Social Security and other federal supports for elders, and last Tuesday one of the main speakers called on to testify at Conrad-Gregg hearing on the task force was Walker.
As Altman stressed that the bipartisan 1983 commission, chaired by and informally named for Greenspan, accomplished major reforms of Social Security – which was in far deeper trouble then than it is now – through normal congressional debate and floor votes.
How quaint. Democracy actually worked. Maybe our representatives should try a little constructive nation building right there under the Capitol dome.
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