Rep. Jim Cooper never misses a chance to talk about the federal government’s swelling financial obligations. But the Tennessee Democrat clams up when asked about a conversation he had on the topic with his party’s likely presidential nominee, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.
“I’ll let his campaign speak to his position on this issue,” Cooper says.
Cooper’s silence is understandable: Although the party that takes power next year will have to address deficit reduction and entitlement reform, those issues — especially when they involve painful changes to Social Security and Medicare — are too hot to touch during a presidential election campaign.
Instead, Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are positioning themselves — quietly — to deal with the difficult choices after the election is over.
At the request of fiscally conservative Blue Dog Democrats, House Budget Committee Chairman John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) will convene a hearing later this month to address some of the entitlement questions.
At the centerpiece of that hearing will be a proposal, authored by Cooper and Republican Rep. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia, that would kick entitlement reform to a bipartisan commission like the one that has handled military base closings. The Cooper-Wolf panel would spend a year studying the nation’s fiscal concerns before presenting Congress with a legislative package which it would be forced to vote on in its entirety.
Other members, including Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and ranking Republican Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), have proposed similar commissions with more member involvement. Some lawmakers, including House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), say a bipartisan approach is the best way — maybe the only way — to give members the political cover they need to overhaul these massive federal programs.
“This is the only way to solve the problem,” Wolf said.
The veteran Republican boiled over during a brief discussion about the mounting costs of these programs, scribbling pie charts on the back of a stray bill to demonstrate how the costs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are eating up a greater percentage of the federal budget each year. Wolf and others have grown increasingly frustrated with the partisan politics that have plagued previous reform efforts.
“We’re waiting for Godot,” Wolf said.
But other members say Congress has to keep trying to come up with its own solutions.
“These are monumental decisions,” Spratt said. “They shouldn’t be made in a black and white manner. I don’t think members would be happy with outsider recommendations.”
His GOP counterpart on the Budget panel, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, agrees.
“I just want to do it,” Ryan said. “I’m only interested in actually doing my job.”
To that end, Ryan, an outspoken conservative who has become an increasingly influential voice inside his party, unveiled “A Roadmap for America’s Future,” a comprehensive 391-page bill that lays out his proposals to overhaul Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. For good measure, it also revamps the tax code, creates new budgetary restrictions on Congress and includes Democratic priorities such as means testing for Medicare and Social Security and an improved safety net for low-income Americans.
Ryan plans to spend the rest of the year reaching out to colleagues on both sides of the aisle. He has already spoken to his conservative colleagues in the Republican Study Committee and party moderates in the Tuesday Group. And he has requested meetings with the Blue Dogs, the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democratic groups.
He even gave copies of his proposal to Obama’s and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaigns.
“I’m trying to jump in the pool first to get everyone els to come in and go swimming with me,” Ryan said.
Conrad says that the national debt is “going up like a scalded cat” and that the presidential candidates are going to have to be a part of the conversation about it.
But the process and the politics involved in overhauling any of the entitlement programs remain dicey, particularly for Democrats.
Some lawmakers, including Spratt, favor a piecemeal approach that calls for Congress to reform one program at a time. Under that model, Congress overhauls Social Security, for example, and then moves on to Medicare or the health care system. Others, like Conrad and Ryan, favor a more comprehensive approach in which Congress tackles a major overhaul.
Many of the members who favor a comprehensive approach believe the easiest way to tackle the task would be to couple any changes to these federal entitlement programs with an extension of some of the president’s tax cuts before they expire in 2010. That could give both sides revenue to work with.
But congressional leaders, including the chairmen with direct jurisdiction over these agencies, have not given many signals about which direction they prefer.
In the House, a natural divide separates the liberal wing of the Democratic Party from a small but growing band of fiscal conservatives. These Blue Dogs have created headaches for their leaders on immigration and spending issues since Democrats regained power in 2006. Most recently, the group threatened to block consideration of a measure increasing college aid for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan unless party leaders offset its $52 billion price tag over the next 10 years. These lawmakers are also driving the discussion on entitlement reform, and they are adamant that the next administration must not create new programs without offsetting those costs.
The influence of these fiscal conservatives grows inside the party each time Democrats pick up a seat in a historically Republican district — and they can claim three already this year.
But the biggest concern remains the presidential election. President Bush barely mentioned Social Security reform in the run-up to his reelection in 2004, but it was the hallmark proposal — and one of the signature failures — of his second term.
Both Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain have detailed plans to address each of these issues. The presidential hopefuls offer a lengthy roster of specific remedies to the federal agencies that make up these entitlement programs. They also offer plenty of broader bromides about “protecting seniors” and providing “access to health care for every American.” That includes a measure to overhaul the country’s health care system.
But neither candidate deals with these overhauls in terms of the expected budgetary shortfalls they could create. And the two nominees-in-waiting haven’t exactly dwelled on those proposals, either — and neither have the media.
Cooper, a longtime Obama supporter, said he discussed his commission idea with the Illinois senator after a campaign event earlier this year. He wouldn’t describe Obama’s response, but he did issue a stark challenge for his party — which could include the next president of the United States — about the tough choices ahead.
“At some point, you have to govern,” Cooper said. “We can’t keep on promising candy to everyone. To have a balanced diet, you also have to have meat, vegetables and fruit.”