- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2006

Social Security reform is off the congressional radar screen, and a Medicare overhaul isn’t high on the agenda right now either, but Rep. Frank R. Wolf is trying to force those and other long-term fiscal problems to center stage.

Mr. Wolf, Virginia Republican, is introducing a bill next week that would set up a commission of experts to make a fiscal diagnosis for the government and come up with a package of tax reforms and solutions for the solvency of entitlement programs.

Everything would be on the table, he says, but unlike other commissions, Congress would be required to vote on the commission’s ultimate proposal. Lawmakers or the administration could suggest their own alternative versions, too.

“The country and the Congress are polarized. We’re paralyzed,” Mr. Wolf told the Washington Times yesterday in a breakfast meeting with editors and reporters. “The bill that I’m putting in would force the Congress to deal with it.”

Mr. Wolf said he supports the effort by conservatives to reform the annual spending process and curb hundreds of special pet projects or earmarks, as they are called. But he said lawmakers must start tackling the big, overall issues of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and tax reform, and should do it soon.

“If you really want to deal with the issues in the big [programs], here’s your chance,” Mr. Wolf told conservatives recently.

According to the latest reports, Medicare reserves will be depleted by 2018, and the Social Security trust fund will run out in 2040. Both of these dates are sooner than predicted in last year’s report by the programs’ trustees.

The bill will likely have an uphill climb, but Mr. Wolf said something must be done to force Congress into action.

House Republicans had to struggle for months just to get this year’s budget approved, as centrists fought for more money, he noted. And President Bush’s Social Security reform proposal met resistance from members of both parties, falling flat last year.

The experts on Mr. Wolf’s commission would be chosen by Republican and Democrat congressional leaders and President Bush. But Mr. Wolf envisions people like former Republican Rep. John R. Kasich, who chaired the Budget Committee; former Democrat Rep. Charles Stenholm; James A. Baker III, a former Secretary of State and Treasury secretary; a few former senators; and even former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan.

Under his bill, which is still being drafted, the commission would have to hold public hearings across the country.

Meanwhile, other lawmakers are trying to keep the same issues in the spotlight. Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, forced senators to vote on a Social Security reform proposal as part of their budget plan a few months ago, and he has continually pushed health savings accounts — health insurance owned by individuals — as the idea of the future.

“Mr. Wolf’s idea is probably a good one,” Mr. DeMint said, explaining that forcing Congress to vote “would get people a whole lot more serious about what that commission was doing.”

Mr. DeMint said he hopes Congress will start to act once it is past the midterm elections.

“We just have to keep the pressure on,” he said. “Too many people think we can push it down the road.”

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