by Robert Coon
Posted 4/30/2014 01:21 pm
Updated 5 months ago
"I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now."
The 1989 song "I Want It All" by English rock legend Queen, does as good of a job as any at getting to the root cause of our nation’s $17.4 trillion national debt – the insatiable and unabashed addiction we have to spending.
Whether it’s funding the most advanced military in the world, health care and retirement benefits for seniors, safe and reliable roads and bridges, veterans benefits, or one of the myriad other federal programs, there’s simply no shortage of things that we as a society want, and have come to expect, from our government.
Not only do we want it all, we’ve actually convinced ourselves that we can have it all. And for a long time we’ve done just that (1), which is how the United States of America, the leader of the free world, has amassed a national debt that equates to roughly $55,000 for every man, woman, and child in this country or roughly $152,000 per taxpayer (2) – a debt that increased by an astounding $2.18 billion each day in 2013.
But recognizing the size of our debt problem is only half the battle. To truly do something about it, we first have to look deeper at the spending priorities that have caused it to grow so rapidly.
It’s the Entitlements, Stupid (3)
Laura Saunders with the Wall Street Journal wrote an informative piece before Tax Day analyzing how the government actually spends our tax dollars. The article included the following graphic entitled "Where Your Tax Dollar Goes," compiled by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, detailing government spending for 2013.
As you can see in the chart below, programs like food stamps and foreign aid – often popular targets of those looking to reduce "out of control" and "bloated" spending – pale in comparison to what our government spends on entitlements like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
And despite all the focus and attention given to the broad spending cuts required by the Congressional sequester agreement, the truth is that reductions in "discretionary spending" (4) – while certainly painful for some – are merely window dressing when it comes to getting our fiscal house in order.
Reducing discretionary spending to solve our debt crisis is like taking the sprinkles off a cupcake in an effort to lose weight.
It’s mandatory spending we should be worrying about, and it continues to skyrocket. In 2013, $45.62 of every $100 in taxes paid to the government was spent on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, making entitlement programs the largest portion of federal spending and leaving no doubt that they serve as the drivers of our national debt.
But you don’t have to take my word for it.
As the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) wrote in its 2013 Long-Term Budget Outlook, "Unless substantial changes are made to the major health care programs and Social Security, those programs will absorb a much larger share of the economy’s total output in the future than they have in the past."
Officials at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) agree, noting in their Federal Fiscal Outlook that "the federal government's long-term fiscal imbalances are driven on the spending side by the effects of an aging population and rising health care costs on Social Security and major federal health programs."
Yet despite broad and objective recognition of the challenges we face when it comes to making entitlements sustainable, reform remains elusive.
Because It’s Also About Politics
The massive federal debt that our nation has incurred is a problem of our own making, and we all share some of the blame for it. But as much as you might blame spoiled kids for being, well, spoiled, a good portion of the blame rests with their weak-willed parents who allow them to have everything that they want without consequence.
In the case of our national debt, our weak-willed parents are elected officials in Washington who lack the courage and backbone to tell us "no," and instead continue to pass annual budget deficits that give us all that we want, but make the debt problem infinitely worse.
Some have tried to tackle true spending and entitlement reform. The Path to Prosperity budget plan, first released in 2011 (5) and led by House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., included a number of bold and necessary entitlement reforms aimed at making programs like Medicare and Medicaid sustainable over the long-term. By making small, gradual changes for current beneficiaries, more structural program changes for future beneficiaries, and broad reductions in discretionary spending, the plan was projected at the time to cut "$6.2 trillion in government spending over the next decade."
Of course as everyone knows, anytime an elected official publicly talks about reforming Medicare or Social Security, a bulls-eye appears on their back. Ryan and those who supported his plan have been heavily criticized with the same old "Mediscare" tactics that have been around for years – including hyperbolic TV ads like the now famous throw "Granny Off The Cliff" ad, and countless "end Medicare as we know it" press releases, mail pieces and attack ads.
It was just this week in the Arkansas Senate race that Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor released his latest Mediscare attack ad against Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, claiming that while Pryor is working to "protect Medicare," Cotton is attempting to raise the age of eligibility and turn Medicare over to the insurance industry.
From a purely political standpoint, attacking Cotton over his vote to reform Medicare is probably good strategy, and one that Pryor’s team has used often. This particular ad is the Pryor campaign’s latest attempt at igniting a fear in Arkansas seniors that Cotton wants to take Medicare away from them. (6)
But while it might make for good political ammunition, Pryor’s position of preserving the status quo as it relates to Medicare is absolutely terrible policy, and it completely ignores the fact that Medicare is on an unsustainable path unless, as the CBO puts it, "substantial changes are made."
It also reeks of hypocrisy. In a video on his campaign website, Pryor claims that an "irresponsible few" want to "raise the eligibility age for benefits" for Medicare, calling the effects "catastrophic." Yet in a 2011 interview, Pryor said that Congress could easily fix another entitlement program, Social Security, if "people will get serious about this in Washington" and … wait for it … raise the retirement age to 68 or 69 for future beneficiaries – advocating for virtually the same approach to fixing Social Security that he is now attacking Cotton for supporting. (7)
Moreover, the "Medicare Protection Act" Pryor touts in his latest ad would specifically prohibit the very same approach from being used to save Medicare down the road – even though he’s previously voiced support for the concept.
Difficult Choices Ahead
For some, reforming Medicare and Social Security is the right thing to do, because it puts these programs on a sustainable path – preserving them for those that need them – and will help reverse course to avoid the financial disaster our country is rapidly approaching. For others, reigning in government spending on entitlement programs is just too politically risky.
The bottom line is this: If we’re not going to have a serious conversation about entitlement reform, then the only other options to fix our out-of-control national debt are massive tax increases to boost federal revenue (8) and drastic cuts to discretionary programs that make the $1.2 trillion sequester look like a non-event.
Like it or not, preserving the status quo for Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid means that all the other things we "want" - roads and highways, scientific research, agriculture programs, veterans benefits, economic development programs, education initiatives like Head Start, and even military facilities and personnel - are on the chopping block. And when that day comes, we should hold those that refuse to make entitlement reforms a priority accountable.
Wanting it all is no longer an option.
Now is the time to make difficult choices, recognizing that some level of sacrifice is necessary. We need to rethink exactly what it is that we want before we run out of options. And we need to do it now.
(1) Certainly no one can say that we Americans can’t achieve what we set our minds to.
(2) Figures approximated at the time of writing. Given that the national debt increases by billions of dollars per day, numbers linked here are undoubtedly higher already.
(3) With apologies to James Carville.
(4) The sequester did make some nominal cuts to Medicare provider payments, but it did not overhaul the program.
(5) As well as subsequent plans in 2012, 2013 and 2014.
(6) The Pryor campaign and allied organizations have made attacking Cotton over Medicare a regular campaign theme (presumably because they believe its resonating) and have devoted several TV ads to the topic in recent months. While his November ad was rated "Mostly True" by Politifact, his February ad which said Cotton’s votes would "increase out-of-pocket expenses for every senior in Arkansas" was called "misleading" and rated "Mostly False."
(7) This interview is great example of Pryor’s pragmatic approach, which I generally admire. But it seems that the problem-solving, solution-seeking Pryor has been shelved due to this year’s election year battle royale.
(8) Which could actually backfire by threatening economic recovery and future growth, quite possibly making our debt problem even worse.
(Robert Coon is a partner at Impact Management Group, a public relations, public opinion and public affairs firm in Little Rock and Baton Rouge, La. You can follow him on Twitter at RobertWCoon. His column appears every other Wednesday in the weekly Government & Politics e-newsletter. You can subscribe for free here.)