Chris Christie unveils national entitlement reform plan

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J. speaks in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, April 14, 2015.

AP Photo/Jim Cole

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie may not be quite ready to declare his candidacy for the presidency, but he is apparently ready to tackle one of the government's biggest problems. He went to New Hampshire Tuesday to unveil his national plan to reform entitlement spending.

At a speech in Manchester, the New Jersey governor criticized the federal government for failing to take action on the nation's debt, saying that entitlement spending is "growing the deficit and slowly but surely taking over all of government. In the long term, it will steal our children's future and bankrupt our nation."

And Washington, he continued, "is afraid to have an honest conversation about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with the people of our country. I am not."

To that end, Christie, true to his word, has an ambitious plan to change Medicare and Medicaid. He would also restructure Social Security, changing it from an entitlement to what would effectively be an insurance policy. To that end, he told his audience, "We should remember that Social Security should be retirement insurance." Besides gradually raising the retirement age to 69, and the early retirement age to 64, Christie proposes that the wealthiest Americans forego a Social Security check.

We should have, he said, a "modest means test that only affects those with non-Social Security income of over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income."

His plan wouldn't kick in for some time - 2022 is his phase-in date. Christie promised his proposal "would not affect seniors currently in these programs or seniors approaching retirement."

Seniors who hold onto their jobs would see lower taxes - Christie's plan would mean that the government would stop collecting payroll taxes from seniors working beyond the age of 62.

Christie would also alter the means testing that is currently in place, with wealthier Medicare recipients paying more of their premium costs on a sliding scale. Those at the top, making $196,000 or more, would pay 90 percent of their premiums out of pocket. Medicare retirement ages would also go up very slowly - by 2064, the eligibility age would be 69.

Medicaid, is, as Christie notes, "the fastest-growing federal entitlement." Christie wants to simplify the program so that states would receive fixed amounts per enrollee, which, he said, citing the Congressional Budget Office, would reduce the deficit by $500 billion over the next decade.

Maya MacGuineas, of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, has been pushing politicians to rethink the country's deficit problem for some time. She welcomed Christie's plan, telling CBS News in an email, "While other politicians are running away from the issue, [Christie] is running towards it, and not only starting a straightforward discussion about the need to reform entitlements, but also offering real specifics."

Michael Tanner of the Libertarian CATO Institute, like MacGuineas, has observed that other candidates have largely been silent on entitlement reform. He noted that Jeb Bush has mentioned raising the retirement age, and Rand Paul has proposed balancing the budget in five years, but Tanner told CBS News, "No one has been willing to get very specific about it, and this [Christie's proposal] might force them to do that."

Tanner is interested in seeing where Hillary Clinton lands in this conversation, suggesting that she could find herself pulled in different directions: "Bill Clinton was a reformer, but the pressure from Elizabeth Warren and others on the left is to expand Social Security. Is she going to be more like Bill? Or more like Warren?"

There has been little attention paid to entitlement reform lately. The improvement in the nation's economic outlook has meant reduced deficits for the past couple of years. In the next few years, however, entitlement spending will increase as the baby boomers continue to retire, and deficits are projected to rise again.

Christie may still be waiting for a number of things to happen before he settles on a decision to run. The Fort Lee bridge controversy is still playing out - the New York Times reported last week that indictments are coming. He may also be waiting to see what happens to the very crowded field on the Republican side and whether it will be winnowed at all in the next few months. And he probably needs to win some voters over again - a CBS News poll published in March found that 42 percent of Republicans would not consider voting for Christie.

But whether or not Christie ultimately decides to run, as far as MacGuineas is concerned, "when it comes to entitlements, there is happy talk, and there is the truth. He is doing a real national service by jumpstarting this conversation."