The truth hurts

October 28, 1994|By Marianne Means

Washington -- A FEW WEEKS AFTER the midterm election is safely over, a high-powered bipartisan commission is expected to come right out and say what is currently unsayable: either taxes should be raised or Social Security and Medicare benefits should be cut to protect the economy.

President Clinton, lawmakers in both parties and every respected economist already know essentially what the commission's recommendations are likely to be.

And while the commission may well sound more apoplectic than they feel is warranted, they know it is doing what needs doing.

But a campaign, dominated by sneers, smears and sound bites, is not the place to discuss the complicated nuances of harsh reality.

The slightest suggestion of tinkering with the federal safety net on which millions of Americans depend sends voters up the wall, and justifiably, too.

Currently, Democrats and Republicans are heatedly charging each other with crafting dire secret schemes to hurt the elderly by drastically slashing their benefits. At the same time they are denying that they themselves would dream of doing any such thing.

Nobody has the inclination, the time -- or the interest in committing political suicide -- to go into the fine points of future economic adjustments most experts agree are essential.

President Clinton and his allies are busily pointing out that the so-called "contract with America" signed by House Republican candidates calls for massive new tax breaks and increased defense spending but does not specify where spending cuts would be made to pay for this. This, the Democrats say, would cost upwards of a trillion dollars, either busting the budget or requiring the Republicans to stick it to the elderly and retired who get Social Security and Medicare benefits.

In return, the Republicans seized upon a leaked laundry list compiled by White House budget director Alice Rivlin reviewing the financial options the president faces in next year's budget. Among the contingencies were various ways to trim back Social Security and Medicare, which the Republicans claimed indicated the president was about to do just what he was accusing the GOP of planning.

The upshot is that both the president and the would-be GOP congressional majority are now freshly on record with campaign promises not to touch Social Security or Medicare, even for the rich, no matter what. These are promises they can keep only if they forget about controlling the wayward budget, stimulating the economy and keeping their promises in other areas.

The Republican hands-off pledge is the least credible, given that the GOP contract proposes to drain the treasury without specifying some counterbalancing action to replenish it. The president has more flexibility to avoid touching Social Security and Medicare because he is not ideologically committed to budget-busting tax cuts or opposed to raising money in other ways.

None of this is exactly new and shocking stuff. Politicians of both parties have talked openly for years about tapping into "entitlements" to balance the budget, finance other ventures and protect the reserve benefits pool for future generations.

Voters don't seem to mind when antiseptic "entitlements" are discussed. It is a generic, vague term that suggests somebody else is getting a generous deal that's not deserved.

However, translate that into specifics -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, pensions for veterans and civilian government retirees -- and everyone affected gets the message. And that's most of us. Concerns about balancing the budget go out the window and self-interest climbs in.

The 32-member blue-ribbon commission was included in the congressional budget accord last year because Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., demanded it as the price of his vote, which the president needed to pass the bill. Bob Kerrey is chairman and Sen. John Danforth, R-Mo., is vice chairman.

It is uniquely positioned to be candid and effective. Mr. Danforth need not pull his punches because he is not seeking re-election this year. Mr. Kerrey, oddly, is free to follow his conscience, too. He is far ahead in his race for re-election; parsimonious Nebraskans admire him despite his willingness to cut government retirement checks, which about 300,000 of them receive.

The commission is considering a range of cuts, some more palatable than others but all likely to be controversial. One is increasing taxes; recipients now pay taxes on half their Social Security payments above a total income threshold of $25,000. Another is extending the eligible retirement date from 65 to 67 or beyond.

Still another is eliminating or cutting in half the current automatic cost-of-living benefit increases.

Proposed cuts in Medicare are even more complicated, as they try to trim sharply but fairly a health insurance system few Americans really understand.

Marianne Means is a syndicated columnist.

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