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“It’s very misleading to say the program is not contributing to the debt, because it is,” said Robert Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a Washington group dedicated to balancing the federal budget. “The Treasury has to come up with the money to make good on the bonds, which is a draw on general revenues.”
Early speculation about the Obama budget has focused on slowing the growth of Social Security benefits and reducing Medicare costs by cutting payments to health care providers and drug companies. But to make any changes, Obama would need some Democratic support, assuming he could make a deal with Republicans on new tax revenue.
Both are far from certain.
“If you want to set up a boogeyman against your [political] opponent, it’s very tempting to talk about how somebody’s going to take away Social Security or slash Medicare,” Bixby said. “ ‘Throw grandma in the street.’ It’s preying on the fears of the elderly, rather than solving a problem.”
Sizing up need for change
Franken acknowledges that changes are needed to keep Social Security solvent but says that reducing the cost-of-living index is not the way to go about it. “I don’t think the place to start is with a piecemeal proposal that disproportionately affects our oldest and most vulnerable seniors,” he said, “and I will fight against benefits cuts.”
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar was more elusive: “I would have to see the specific proposal and what protections are included [in the budget], such as protections for older retirees and the nation’s most vulnerable.”
In the past, Klobuchar and Franken have said they would consider reforms such as raising the retirement age for future Social Security beneficiaries. They also have voiced openness to raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security payroll tax, now set at $113,700.
On Medicare, the Minnesota senators say savings could be achieved by allowing the government to negotiate drug prices and enact national reforms based on the Minnesota model of high-quality, low-cost care.
The Senate Democratic budget reform proposals stand in stark contrast to the House-passed GOP plan to repeal the Affordable Care Act, turn Medicaid into a state block-grant program and provide seniors with Medicare “premium support” vouchers to buy private insurance. In contrast to a Senate-passed budget plan, the GOP, with the support of all three Minnesota Republicans in the House, uniformly opposes increasing taxes on anybody. That, for the foreseeable future, leaves entitlement reform in limbo.
Kevin Diaz • firstname.lastname@example.org