- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

There is no easy fix.

Medicare and Social Security will go broke sooner rather than later because of the recession. With millions of baby boomers beginning to leave the work force, the cost of these popular benefit programs threatens to swamp the government in debt in the coming years if nothing is done.

Congress and the White House are under increasing pressure to find a solution.

One proposal gaining steam is creating a bipartisan commission to tackle the approaching insolvency of the government’s three big “entitlement” programs: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Everything would be on the table, including tax increases and benefit cuts. The commission would produce a “grand bargain” package of recommendations that Congress could accept or reject in total.

It’s the same process the country has used since 1988 to handle military base closings, where the single take-it-or-leave-it vote provides a measure of political cover to lawmakers.

President Obama has said that action to overhaul Social Security and other guaranteed-benefit programs is critical. But top aides are cool to the commission idea for now, wanting Congress to deal first with the president’s ambitious health care and global warming initiatives.

The commission idea is being resisted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, and some influential committee leaders who see it as an end run around the normal legislative process.

“The fact that the leadership has been opposed to it has been a problem,” said Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, one of two original authors of the commission bill in the House. Still, Mr. Wolf said in an interview, “There’s an economic tsunami off the coast, and it’s ready to wipe us out.”

Mr. Wolf also introduced the measure in the previous Congress but failed to interest either President George W. Bush or Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.

In a letter Friday to Mr. Obama, Mr. Wolf raised the prospect that the nation’s coveted triple-A bond rating, which it has held since 1917, may be jeopardized if Congress doesn’t act soon on shoring up Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

Financial markets were rocked last week when Britain was warned by Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service that debts it had incurred in trying to dig out of its economic crisis could result in the loss of its triple-A rating. The threat of a downgrade could signal similar problems for other big economies - particularly the United States, whose finances have been hit just as hard. The White House said it did not expect the U.S. government’s credit rating to be cut.

Mr. Wolf joined with Rep. Jim Cooper, Tennessee Democrat, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, which has long pushed for a Social Security overhaul. A similar bill is being pushed in the Senate by Sens. Kent Conrad, North Dakota Democrat, and Judd Gregg, New Hampshire Republican, the chairman and senior Republican, respectively, on the Senate Budget Committee.

“We cannot allow this issue to be kicked down the road any further,” Mr. Conrad said.

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