- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

One of the more amusing lines in President Bush’s State of the Union Address last month was his call for yet another commission to study entitlement spending.

Entitlements are programs that do not require annual appropriations. The money is paid out automatically to anyone who meets the eligibility criteria. Spending cannot be capped because people have a legal right to their benefits. Hence, spending for entitlements can only be reduced by changing the basic law applying to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

There are two reasons the Bush proposal cannot be taken seriously. First, he has shown contempt for the whole idea of federal commissions. He appointed a Social Security commission early in his presidency, which produced a solid, credible report. But its work was utterly ignored when Mr. Bush started his failed Social Security reform effort last year. A key reason for that failure, I believe, is that the effort was all speeches and sound bites, with no substance — not even a formal proposal that could be studied and analyzed.

More recently, Mr. Bush appointed a tax reform commission. It spent most of 2005 holding hearings and issued a report with options for fundamentally restructuring the income tax. Commission members assumed Mr. Bush would announce a tax reform proposal in the budget or State of the Union address. They were deeply disappointed he simply ignored their work. Reportedly, he didn’t even thank the commission for it.

Given this history, it’s hard to believe people of stature will waste time on yet another disposable commission report, especially when everyone knows there is not enough time left in this administration to do much of anything meaningful.

According to press reports, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who chaired a successful Social Security commission in the early 1980s, politely turned down the opportunity to chair this new commission.

The second reason Mr. Bush’s call for an entitlement commission is laughable is that he is largely responsible for the growing crisis in entitlement spending. He rammed a vast expansion of Medicare through a Republican Congress in 2003, increasing that program’s unfunded liability almost 40 percent.

According to Medicare’s trustees, the unfunded liability of Medicare is $68.1 trillion. Of that, $18.2 trillion is accounted for by the new drug benefit alone.

By contrast, the unfunded liability of Social Security is just $11.1 trillion. This means we could repeal the drug program, fund Social Security forever with no benefit cuts or tax increases, and still cut $7 trillion off the national debt.

Historically, Republicans have opposed new entitlement programs because they always cost vastly more than estimated and are extremely difficult to control. The cost of the original Medicare program, for example, by 1980 was sevenfold what was projected in 1965. And because the elderly, the primary beneficiaries of entitlement spending, are so politically powerful, only the bravest politician will even think of cutting their benefits. It would be easier to try and take food out of the mouths of hungry Rottweilers.

It would be one thing if Republicans had won major reforms to the Medicare program as their price for the new largess. But no meaningful reforms were included in the final legislation, largely part because early on Mr. Bush announced he would sign any bill, no matter what was in it. The Medicare drug program was enacted for one reason only: Republicans thought they were buying the votes of the elderly for re-election. That’s it.

It is ironic Republicans have garnered virtually no political support from this fundamental sell-out of their principles. In part, that is because implementing the drug program has been plagued by problems. For instance, seniors have had difficulty figuring out the program, many have lost drug benefits they previously had, and states have had to spend millions to cover gaps in the program for elderly Medicaid patients.

So it comes as little surprise surveys have found seniors turning against Republicans for the very benefit that was designed to buy their votes forever. A new poll from the Democracy Corps found only 25 percent of those over age 65 favor the drug program; 53 percent reject it. This may explain why Mr. Bush did not tout it in his State of the Union address.

There is little doubt the drug benefit would fail if it came up again in Congress today. I believe Republicans would probably be better off politically if they had enacted a much smaller, less expensive and more targeted program. If they simply did nothing, I don’t think they would be any worse off.

Bruce Bartlett is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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