Ever-expanding entitlements make elusive target But push to cut them is gaining steam

May 30, 1993|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,Washington Bureau Jeff Leeds of the Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Already they account for almost half of all federal spending, and still they are among the fastest-growing programs in government.

They were at the center of the political compromise last week that got President Clinton's budget through the House, and they will be the focus of the looming battle he faces in the Senate.

They are the entitlement programs, which benefit the elderly, the young, the needy and the not-so-needy.

They range from Social Security to food stamps, from unemployment benefits to targeted health care, from veterans benefits to retirement pay for federal workers.

With popular demand for deficit reduction gaining strength, almost everyone agrees the country cannot afford to continue paying for their constant growth.

The economic argument

Economically, the argument for action is as strong as the programs' expansion.

In 1973 they consumed 8.8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), the total of goods and services produced by the nation. This year it will be 12.5 percent, and by 2003, according to the Congressional Budget Office, 15.1 percent of GDP -- almost doubling their share of federal spending in 30 years.

"The big cuts are clearly in entitlements," said Stanley Collender, director of budget affairs of Price Waterhouse.

"There is clearly going to be movement toward entitlement caps and entitlement reductions."

The problem has been to find both the political will and an acceptable way to control the programs that make life more livable for millions of Americans. Now, their status as the untouchable "sacred cows" of government is being challenged.

Mr. Clinton agreed last week to a compromise between conservative and mainstream Democrats in the House to put target limits on future costs of the entitlement programs, with a requirement that any time those targets are exceeded the president must find offsetting savings or tax increases or increase the deficit. The move does not cut the programs, but it would subject them to what Mr. Clinton called "some discipline."

The issue now moves to the Senate, where David L. Boren, a conservative Democrat from Oklahoma, has joined with John C. Danforth, a moderate Republican from Missouri, to craft an alternative to the Clinton plan for cutting the deficit. Both senators are members of the Finance Committee, which is critical to Senate passage of the budget.

Their bipartisan plan would slash Mr. Clinton's proposed tax increases from $272 billion over five years to $150 billion, mainly by eliminating the broad-based energy tax. It would offset this reduction in taxes by spending cuts of $337 billion over five years, up from $174 billion proposed by the administration.

Most of the increased savings would come from capping entitlement programs, with cuts of $114 billion in Medicaid and Medicare, and a reduction in cost-of-living adjustments on Social Security benefits above $600 a month, which would save another $23 billion.

"We are finally facing up to a very basic question for our country," said Mr. Danforth, although it remains doubtful that the proposal to actually cut the programs will be adopted.

No 'partisan flavor'

Robert Moffitt, domestic policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said: "The significance of this is that it does not have a partisan flavor really. That really changes the debate. It is no longer a Republican vs. Democrat argument on Capitol Hill. It is more a conservative vs. liberal argument.

"I think there is widespread recognition that we can't continue to spend money the way we are spending it. We are starting to

recognize, and the sentiment is growing, that we can't continue to do this. We are threatening the future of the country if we continue down this road."

At the liberal end of the spectrum, Robert Greenstein, director of the labor-backed Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, pointed out that entitlements generally, with the exceptions of Medicaid and Medicare, were not major contributors to the deficit.

He suggested voters were more ready to support cutting "entitlements," a word whose precise meaning they might not understand, than they were to see their parents' Social Security checks reduced, their grandmother's Medicare benefits pared back, or their own unemployment compensation cut.

"This is one of those situations where it depends how you ask the question," he said. "To simply say there is support for cutting something abstract like 'entitlements' is not very illuminating."

Mr. Greenstein said he favored "judicious" entitlement expenditure cuts. But he opposed spending caps that could prevent benefit programs from responding to increased need during recessions or expanding to cater for increased eligibility. He cautioned that capping health care entitlements could simply shift costs from the federal government to alternative state or private care providers.

Call for specifics

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