Michael Gerson

Members of Congress should take special notice. Are you an advocate of growth-oriented tax cuts like, say, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.? Without entitlement reform, future tax reductions are a budgetary impossibility. Support defense spending like Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., or increased resources for child nutrition like Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.? Want more emphasis on fighting poverty, low-income housing, foreign assistance, health research, national parks, environmental protection, border patrols or plain old congressional pork? All will be severely constrained by the current trend in entitlement spending growth.

Every federal budget involves a debate between liberal and conservative priorities on discretionary spending and tax reductions, expressed in the production of 12 annual appropriations bills. But the trajectory of mandatory spending threatens all of those priorities. Properly understood, the budget battle is not between big spenders and budget hawks. It is between those who want to spend larger and larger portions of the budget on health care and transfers to the elderly, and those who want to use budget resources for anything else.

The coming debt debate will be sensitive and uncomfortable because it has undercurrents of generational conflict. Since the New Deal, America has seen a massive transfer of wealth from young to old through entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare, with many dramatically positive results. But that transfer is quickly escalating. Baby boomers are now beginning to retire in surging numbers. People are living longer and collecting benefits for more years -- a good thing, but expensive for federal programs. And health costs are increasing faster than are other forms of inflation. In an entitlement system, these public commitments expand automatically, requiring political intervention to change. Devoting resources to the sick and elderly counts many achievements and benefits. But we are reaching a point where these important priorities threaten to overwhelm everything else.

The political constituency for accelerated mandatory spending, including AARP and health providers, is powerful on both sides of the aisle. But the coalition for entitlement reform should be broad as well, including everyone from tax cutters to poverty warriors to pork spenders. When members of Congress find their legislative discretion severely narrowed by mandatory commitments, they may awaken to difficult, necessary responsibilities. For them, it is a choice between reform and irrelevance.

Entitlement reform remains an uphill political cause -- but maybe not a hopeless one.


Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
 
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