Entitlement Reform: A Fight We Can Win

The United States is crossroads. We are facing a massive deficit brought on by historic spending and entitlement expansion. The nation is now coming to the slow realization that these policies cannot be sustained without crippling their economy for years to come. But it is the next generation that will be responsible for the fiscal responsibility of today’s government.

Therein lies the problem. Former Congressman Jack Danforth said back in 1992 that,

“I have never seen more senators express discontent with their jobs . . . I think the major reason is that, deep down in our hearts, we have been accomplices to doing something terrible and unforgivable to this wonderful country. Deep down in our hearts, we know that we have bankrupted America and that we have given our children a legacy of bankruptcy . . . We have defrauded our country to get ourselves elected.”

That quote sums up the multitude of problems that prevents the government from coming up with real solutions to the debt crisis. First, an election survival instinct instructs Congressmen to ignore the problem. Entitlement reform is as polarizing as Duke basketball. Elected officials, who remain in a constant struggle to stay in office, tend to shy away from divisive topics which could cost them votes.

The perfect example is health care reform. Finding votes on one of the Democrats top legislative priorities was akin to pulling teeth. And that’s when you try to give people something. Imagine the toxicity of a policy choice that requires taking away something from people. Fortunately the tide may be turning here. Recent polls show that people’s concern with the debt and deficit are growing into major issues amongst the electorate. But while the issue remains popular in the abstract it receives much less fanfare in practice. For instance, everyone likes hearing that a candidate will cut the deficit, nobody likes hearing that he’s going to do it by increasing the retirement age.

Second, there is very little incentive for the government to act immediately. Jack Danforth’s quote about bankrupting future generations was made back in 1992 – nearly 20 years ago! If Congress senses there is an opportunity to kick an unpopular can down the road it is pretty much a sure bet that they will. Eventually the problem must come to a head. There are only so many generations who can say, “we must do this to save our kid’s future” before that future becomes the present.

Third, a generational struggle exists in the fight to lower the budget deficit. As the Economistwrote,

“The main fault line is often intergenerational. Some promises, particularly on public-sector pensions and health care, may impose too great a burden on the next generation. Middle-aged Americans have written checks on the accounts of their children. Scaling back those promises, for example by raising the pension age, is a prerequisite for getting public finances in order just about everywhere . . .”

Older generations don’t have the same anxiety about national debt and budget deficits as younger generations. Older voters take a micro-view of the debt and are mainly concerned with maintaining and maximizing their benefits. Younger voters take a macro-view in that they understand that without reform they are likely to either suffer through increased taxes or reduced benefits. Unfortunately, older voters are notoriously reliable to show up to vote in November whereas young voters must overcome a stigma of apathy. The stigma has translated into a powerful voting cue for members of Congress. Tough to win elections, especially as a Republican, by conceding the older cohort to another candidate. This is why Danforth felt like an “accomplice to doing something terrible.”  He, like many of today’s politicians, understood the political expediency (which runs directly in contrast with the long-term economic expediency) of the continued growth in government spending.

While an intergenerational fault line exists it does not follow that there must be an avalanche of debt. Our nation is already approaching the first prerequisite to getting generations on the same page – a common understanding of the debt and entitlement crisis we face. But we must also seek out reforms that cater to young and old alike. For instance, we could eliminate the Social Security payroll tax so that we close the gap between dollars paid into the program and benefits received by the retiree but also index the retirement age to today’s life expectancy. Entitlements and debt are simply too big of an issue to be tackled by only one age constituency. We must find common ground where we can and promote an understanding that we must fix the system before it breaks down completely.

We must not be “accomplices” in bankrupting this generation. Our generation is one step ahead in their understanding of the dire fiscal future of this nation. We still face an uphill struggle. We must make Washington understand that we must act quickly. Our actions must make them believe that the truly politically toxic maneuver is to ignore the issue. We’re fighting against an image of our own creation, but it is a fight we can win.

by Brandon Greife, Political Director of the College Republican National Committee

Read more: www.collegerepublicans.org