Alice in Blatherland

October 26, 1994

Democrats and Republicans are accusing one another of cynicism and hypocrisy on the hot-button issue of financing Social Security, Medicare and other skyrocketing entitlement programs. Of course, both are right. What set off a pre-election barrage of blather on the subject was a memo by Budget Director Alice M. Rivlin in which she committed the unpardonable. She told the truth.

Everyone in imperial Washington who is in the least knowledgeable about fiscal problems knows that the Social Security and Medicare programs are heading right over the cliff. The Congressional Budget Office has reckoned that the Social Security's vaunted trust fund will start being depleted in 2013 and will be bone dry by 2029 as the huge baby boomer generation draws old age benefits. Medicare faces an earlier crisis, which is one reason for the sputtering drive for health care reform.

Yet politicians of all stripes blanch at the thought of telling today's golden agers that they are shortchanging their grandchildren or telling the working population it will have to put off retirement a few years. They would rather tinker with the budget at the edges, hoping punishing solutions will not come due on their watch.

It was into this Potomac swamp that Ms. Rivlin stepped when, as all good budget directors do, she prepared a compilation of deficit-fighting options under discussion by experts in the field. Her now-famous memo not only dealt with entitlements but with such explosive ideas as eliminating or reducing federal income tax deductions for mortgage interest payments and for state and local taxes.

Her timing was unfortunate. Bill Clinton's Democrats and Bob Dole's Republicans quickly declared Social Security sacrosanct -- again -- and accused one another of plotting otherwise. In other words, of plotting to do the right thing.

After the Nov. 8 elections, there will be a reality check when the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement Reform, headed by Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., issues a report that will urge immediate action "to resolve the long-term imbalance between the government's entitlement promises and the funds it will have available to pay for them." Since this is describing what may be a Mission Impossible, the political fraternity might have to do what it did in handling military base closings: Appoint a commission that will impose its own solutions, subject only to a White House or congressional veto that would be easier to sidestep than a vote under regular legislative procedure.

Ms. Rivlin has our blessing. It is tough to tell the truth in today's Washington. Since the politicians won't do it, any budget director worthy of her green eyeshade will just have to keep writing memos.

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