- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

The more Rep. Bill Thomas talks about today’s once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the interrelated issues of America’s aging society and the financial challenges that those demographic trends present, the more we want to hear. On the heels of his Jan. 18 appearance at National Journal’s Inauguration Week Forum, during which he argued for the need to tackle Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and tax reform simultaneously, Mr. Thomas delivered a tour-de-force performance Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

These issues are incalculably complex in their own right, to say nothing of a package incorporating all of them. Thus, the initial exposure to Mr. Thomas’ interconnected paradigm has a tendency to leave one reeling. However, after reading the transcripts or catching a replay on C-SPAN or MSNBC, one conclusion seems obvious: No senior politician has matched Mr. Thomas’ clarity of mind in understanding the full dimensions of an aging society’s problems or his courage in stating the options available to solve these problems.

Mr. Thomas arrived in Congress in 1979. In 1983, when Congress last addressed Social Security by increasing the retirement age and bringing forward scheduled increases in the payroll tax, he was the lowest-ranking member from the minority party on both the House Ways and Means Committee and its Social Security subcommittee. Since 2001, Mr. Thomas has chaired Ways and Means, where any legislation affecting Social Security, other aging-related programs and tax reform will be drafted.

From that perch, he has repeatedly begged us in recent days not to “kick the pieces around in the Social Security box. That’s all that’s ever been done.” From his experience, he has learned — as, perhaps, we all should have learned — that “the last significant changes we made in ‘83 did not discuss other themes that only become important to us because we failed to address them back at that time.” He specifically means the costs of chronic, long-term care, which, since 1983, have significantly contributed to the skyrocketing costs of both Medicare, which was designed as an acute-care system, and Medicaid, to which the impoverished elderly turn to finance the soaring costs of nursing-home care.

He wants to know: “Why aren’t we discussing incorporating in [the Social Security debate] chronic or long-term care for the very same [future] seniors who could put together a significant contribution to taking care of their [own] long-term care needs at the same time we restructure Social Security?” He wants to exploit the benefits of the time value of money by “allow[ing] younger people to structure for their needs in the future, not just in personal [retirement] accounts but in [ways] to help them with the known costs of chronic and long-term care.”

By broaching ideas involving gender, race and occupational class and by encouraging policy-makers to move beyond re-arranging items in the Social Security box, he has willingly exposed himself to every possible cheap shot from the four corners of the Washington power grid, including the free-lunch crowd and the no-problem brigade. We would all benefit from a future exposition from the chairman on the legislative and political dimensions of getting it all done.

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