Robert J. Samuelson: What is an entitlement? Let's drop the label

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

They should be. The budget problem is to match Americans' appetite for government benefits with a willingness to be taxed. The whole range of government programs and taxes ought to be on the table. By effectively excluding nearly two-thirds of spending — entitlement programs — Congress and the White House increase pressures to cut non-entitlement programs and to raise taxes. We're squeezing defense and domestic programs (parks, the FBI, the National Institutes of Health, transportation and others) to spare entitlements. The so-called "sequester" mandates across-the-board cuts for these "discretionary" programs.

That's why we'd be better off ditching the notion of entitlement. It's outlived its usefulness. Programs shouldn't be shielded from constructive criticism and change just because they're hiding behind an obsolete label. Given most programs' popularity and big constituencies, draconian cuts are unlikely and undesirable. But huge savings over decades can result from modest shifts in eligibility requirements and benefit levels. These could be phased in to make them more palatable and less disruptive to the economy.

Our entitlement hang-up has momentous consequences. Too much change is being forced onto too little government. Deadlocks persist because, without Democratic entitlement concessions, Republican tax concessions are implausible. Ideally, the president would seek to change public opinion by confronting its contradictions. But he has done little, leaving the White House and Congress in a state of perpetual warfare.

Robert J. Samuelson is a Washington Post columnist.

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