- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The characters in the Netflix series “House of Cards” seem more capable of putting America on track to a bright fiscal future than their real-life Washington counterparts.

In the show, the White House gets a divided Congress to pass meaningful entitlement reform.

It stands in stark contrast to the actual lawmakers, who just granted President Obama a limitless debt ceiling, with no spending reforms and the prospect of financial ruin. 

In the second season of “House of Cards,” Democratic President Garrett Walker struggles to prepare his State of the Union speech, which he will deliver just a day before a scheduled government shutdown — called a “freeze” on the show — due to spending battles with the Republican Senate. 

Newly appointed Vice President Frank Underwood (played by Kevin Spacey) offers to negotiate a deal with the GOP to keep the government open in exchange for entitlement reform.

Underwood then goes to Capitol Hill to meet with the Republican Senate majority leader, but the deciding votes in the caucus are controlled Sen. Curtis Haas, the Tea Party leader.

Haas, clearly modeled after Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, shakes hands with Underwood on a “deal” that raises the minimum and normal retirement age for entitlements to 64 and 68, respectively, in five years.  

However, Haas soon goes back on his word, which forces the devious veep to come up with a complicated scheme using obscure Senate rules to make the bill immune to filibuster.

When the GOP members leave the floor to prevent a quorum, Underwood has the sergeant at arms bring six of them back to the floor in handcuffs. The big compromise passes with a simple majority.

It then passes the House with some Democratic support and is proudly announced by President Walker in his address to Congress.

Basically, the fictional Washington Democrats went through with a bipartisan deal, which the the real-life ones refused to even negotiate. 

In 2011, House Speaker John A. Boehner tried to get President Obama to accept entitlement reform in exchange for raising the debt ceiling in a so-called “grand bargain.”

House Republicans pushed the same concept in the ensuing negotiations in the bicameral “supercommittee,” but it failed because Democrats insisted on tax hikes. 

Congress has since given the president three debt-ceiling increases without any fiscal discipline attached.

The most recent bump up last week gave Mr. Obama exactly what he demanded in his State of the Union address: a “clean” debt-ceiling increase with  unlimited spending until March 2015, with no spending reforms.

While Republicans in both chambers wanted to avoid a public showdown over the limit, which might allow the president to “change the subject” and thus take away the current media and public focus on Obamacare, they angered the Tea Party for showing no political backbone.  

Mr. Boehner proposed several versions of the legislation to get a united caucus, but no option would have made a meaningful dent in the debt. In the end, Mr. Boehner conceded to a vote on a “clean” debt-ceiling increase, which was passed by Democrats and a couple dozen Republicans.  

In the Senate, the real Mr. Cruz forced a roll-call vote — instead of the expected unanimous consent — on the procedural motion for the higher ceiling.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip John Cornyn were forced to vote “aye” because of their leadership roles, which left them vulnerable to attacks from their primary opponents. (Both voted against final passage of the measure.)

The CBO projects debt held by the public as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) in order to allow for inflation to make comparisons over time. The estimates are frightening.

While debt is 72 percent of the GDP now, it will be 79 percent by 2024 and reach a staggering 110 percent of GDP by 2038.

“We’re in uncharted territory in terms of debt,” explained Patrick Louis Knudsen, who was the policy director of the House Budget Committee for 20 years.  

“The only time we’ve been at or above these levels was the result of war – so the effect was temporary. Now we have historically high levels of debt under permanent programs, and it will only get worse.”

The factor driving the debt to stratospheric levels is the sharp increase in mandatory entitlement spending. Discretionary spending is actually projected to decline over the next decade while tax revenues increase.

“Medicare, Social Security and, to some degree, Medicaid are under pressure because of the baby boomers retiring and increased medical costs,” Mr. Knudsen told me. “Congress will never be able to control the budget without reforming these entitlements.”

“House of Cards” got it right that raising the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare would significantly reduce entitlement spending. Lowering the Social Security COLA to a more reasonable rate would help. 

Shifting Medicare to a premiums-supported plan would make an enormous difference. Retirees would pick their own insurance plans and receive a means-tested subsidy from the government to pay for it.

A market-based system would drive down premiums, and health care costs would decline since the government was no longer setting the fee for reimbursements. 

But the president does not want to do any of these reforms. 

Mr. Obama tweeted for no one to give him spoilers about the new season of “House of Cards,” so we know that he watches the political drama.

He should pay close attention to how the fictional Democratic White House negotiates with congressional Republicans in order to compromise on politically tough changes that are vital to our economy.

Sometimes fiction is better than fact.

Emily Miller is senior editor of opinion for The Washington Times and author of “Emily Gets Her Gun” (Regnery, 2013).

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