My first memory of hearing about the need to revise Social Security dates back to the 1970s. Guarded fiercely by senior citizens, it is often thought of as sacrosanct, as are Medicare and Medicaid. Politicians unable to articulate the real challenges of Social Security, or ineffective at describing its future demise, have battled and come away scarred, but failed to achieve their goal long term.
Ah, but as Scarlett O'Hara said, "Tomorrow is another day," and, well, tomorrow is now.
And it comes in the form of Rep. Tom Price. Slight of build, with frameless glasses and what appears to be a mild demeanor, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee may not initially look like much of a threat. But looks can be deceiving, and it would not be wise to underestimate the Republican from Georgia.
The prestigious and important post he now occupies was most recently held by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., who has moved on to chair the House Ways and Means Committee. Together, these committees shepherd through the taxation (revenue) and spending bills of the House of Representatives.
Government spending and taxes -- aren't they controlled by the president?
Well, no. The president gets to submit his budget wish list to the legislative branch (House and Senate), but the U.S. Constitution mandates that all bills that raise money through taxes and borrowing and then spend that money must originate in the House of Representatives. This is by design. House members are elected every two years, senators every six years, with the president elected every four years. Therefore, the will of the House members should most closely reflect the will of the people. The bills begin in the House, and then move to the Senate and finally make their way to the president's desk.
On the Senate side, the budget process is being led by Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the ranking member on the Senate Budget Committee, and Thad Cochran, R-Miss., the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
The first shot over the bow this Congressional session was the passage of a House rule. While it may sound boring and mundane -- it set the stage for high drama. Any estimate of major legislation "requires the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation, to the extent practicable, to incorporate the macroeconomic effects of 'major legislation' into the official cost estimates used for enforcing the budget resolution and the other rules of the House," according to the House Budget Committee website.
This means that any legislation that is expected to increase economic growth will be reflected in the forward-looking analysis.
Having secured the passage of this important but little noticed step, Price laid out the Budget Committee Agenda earlier this week: "(W)e're on an absolutely unsustainable path," he said. "Revenue isn't the problem. ... The problem is spending."
Annual government spending is $3.6 trillion. More than 70 percent of that sum goes to entitlement programs (Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security) and debt interest. It's virtually impossible to make real changes by focusing solely on the 27 percent of discretionary spending that remains.
Price outlined three ways to address the issue: "You can raise taxes ... decrease spending ... and/or you can grow the economy." According to Price, his focus will be on the third option, with the budget committee "laying out the vision for how we would grow our economy in a very, very positive way, expand success for -- for the American people."
While discretionary spending will not be the focus, Price specifically put the three large entitlement programs on the table, noting that the goal is "to save and strengthen and secure Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security," with the implicit understanding that this means the framework of the programs will have to change because, as they currently stand, they are "going broke."
So what are the options? "Whether it's means testing, whether it's increasing the age of eligibility. The kind of choices -- whether it's providing much greater choices for individuals to voluntarily select the kind of manner in which they believe they ought to be able to invest their working dollars as they go through their lifetime. All those things ought to be on the table and discussed," Price said.
In the Senate, Sessions is supporting a grow-the-economy model, noting on the committee website that, "We need to grow the economy, not the government."
While opponents of such change will call for backing away from this hard work, it is work that needs to be done.
With Price and Ryan leading the House Ways and Means and the Budget Committees, and Cochran and Sessions at the helm of the Senate committees, Republicans have a real chance of placing a forward-looking, growth-focused, fiscally responsible bill on the president's desk.