The government shutdown that began Tuesday has focused attention on the political stalemate dividing Republicans, and especially its right wing, from Democrats. Obamacare, whose enrollment period got off to a rocky start on the same day, is at the center of this dispute.
Because the shutdown affects only discretionary, non-essential government programs and not entitlements, it could not touch the opening day of the president’s health care law. Computer troubles, as it turned out, were more than enough to mar the debut.
But the dispute in Washington is disingenuous on all sides — an aspect current being overlooked amid all the political mud slinging.
Not the tea party, the White House, nor anyone else we know of in Washington, for that matter, is talking about the issues that pose the greatest danger to long-term solvency.
Social Security and Medicare together absorbed 38 percent of federal tax revenues in fiscal 2012, according to a report from the Social Security and Medicare trustees. Both programs, the report said, will experience growth “substantially in excess of GDP growth through the mid-2030s.” This is because the population is aging rapidly, with the so-called baby boom generation retiring.
The tea party relies on the support of many senior citizens who rely on both programs and do not want to see a reduction in benefits. When the teaparty.org web site lists “Special interests must be eliminated” as one of its “15 non-negotiable core beliefs,” it does not follow up by naming senior citizens as one of those special interests.
Yet the Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund is projected to be depleted by 2016, and the overall Social Security trust fund in on track to be broke in 2033. The report said the Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund would run out of money in 2026.
The Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, certainly doesn’t help that picture. Its long-term expenditure projections aren’t in focus yet, but any entitlement program naturally gravitates toward growth and entrenchment.
But even if the president were to cave to pressure and repeal his health care plan (which goes far beyond current demands to delay implementation), it wouldn’t rid the nation of the need to make difficult decisions about Social Security and Medicare. Unfortunately, those items are not part of the larger discussion dominating the shutdown.
America has a spending problem, and as long as that problem remains, it will have a revenue problem, as well. Insolvency waits at the end of the road unless a different path is chosen. Shrinking federal deficits do not change this. They merely give the illusion that problems are solving themselves.
If the shutdown were about entitlement reform or tax reform, it might be worth the temporary pain and the grandstanding. At least it would mean someone in Washington was exhibiting leadership and political courage.
But this fight has all the rational basis of a domestic dispute over the recent purchase of an expensive cable contract when the family already has car and house payments and credit card bills far in excess of its income. Without a much larger and more serious discussion, it’s hard to take either side seriously.