Durbin: Entitlement Reform is "On the Table," Just Don't Mention Any Specific Ideas

Posted: Nov 27, 2012 10:24 AM

You will invariably hear over the coming weeks that our politics are broken because these damned Republicans refuse to compromise on anything.  This narrative, to put it bluntly, is a lie.  John Boehner reportedly offered hundreds of billions of dollars in new revenues during debt deal negotiations last summer (only to have Obama pull the rug out from under him), as did the GOP contingent on the 'Super Committee.'  Democrats shut down that plan, too, then refused to offer a single unified counter-proposal.  Sensing that they've backed their opponents into a corner in this dispute, liberals are aggressively pushing for an our-way-or-the-highway "compromise," secure in the knowledge that Republicans would shoulder the blame in the event of an impasse or failure.  Pretty sweet deal, huh?  While elected Republicans are practically lining up to signal their willingness to buck party orthodoxy by supporting increased tax revenues, are Democrats and liberal interest groups offering similar accommodating gestures?  Nope:

Even as the White House and lawmakers signal optimism about reaching a grand bargain to avert the fiscal cliff before the New Year, President Obama’s liberal allies were battening down the hatches on their position: no cuts to entitlement benefits, at all. MoveOn.org would not get behind any deal that reduced Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security benefits, said Ilya Sheyman, campaign director for the liberal group. The AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, is equally adamant that benefits should not be cut.  

Congressional Democrats have been saying much the same, stating repeatedly that entitlement "cuts" are out of the question.  Here are members of the Democratic brain trust digging in their heels a week after the election:

Heading into Friday’s White House meeting with congressional leaders on how to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, Democrats have mocked House Speaker John Boehner’s offer to raise revenue without raising tax rates and are insisting on increasing rates on the wealthy to meet their demand for $1.6 trillion in new revenue—double the amount on the table during last year’s debt-ceiling debate. And on Wednesday, Senate Democratic leaders said no to another Republican priority when they rejected putting any entitlement reforms forward ahead of Friday’s meeting. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid talked only about what he won’t accept during negotiations—namely, any changes to Social Security. Asked by National Journal Daily what entitlement reforms Democrats are putting on the table, Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, both members of Reid’s leadership team, echoed the majority leader. “He’s not bringing entitlements to the table,” Durbin said. Schumer was less blunt, saying that Democrats are open to making Medicare more efficient, but he refused to talk specifics.  

So they're insisting on the miracle cure of taxing "the rich" -- ignoring both the effects their proposals would have on small businesses, and the laughable inadequacy of those targeted hikes -- while adamantly refusing to touch the biggest (by far) drivers of our long-term debt.  Remember, these are the self-proclaimed reasonable adults in the room.  This approach may be a politically advantageous fantasy while it lasts, but it won't, even in the medium-term.  But you'd better believe Democrats will milk that udder until it's dry; its milk is sweet nectar to pain-averse voters.  Nevertheless, the math is simply unsustainable.  Remember, Obama's unanimously-defeated FY 2013 budget included every class warfare-wagin', tax-hikin', rich-soakin' stunt in the book, and still wouldn't come close to balancing the federal ledger, now or in the future.  Never.   Harry Reid's top deputy appeared on This Week on Sunday and magnanimously explained that of course his party is willing to consider entitlement reforms (contra his previous statements).  Dig any deeper, though, and the feint is exposed (video HERE):

STEPHANOPOULOS: They are signaling that they can't accept the kinds of entitlement reforms, especially in Medicare and Social Security, that Senator Graham is saying are prerequisite to a deal.

DURBIN: Let me tell you, first, George -- and you know this -- Social Security does not add one penny to our debt -- not a penny. It's a separate funded operation, and we can do things that I believe we should now, smaller things, played out over the long term that gives it solvency. Medicare is another story. Only 12 years of solvency lie ahead if we do nothing. So those who say, "Don't touch it, don't change it," are ignoring the obvious. We want Medicare to be there for today's seniors and tomorrow's, as well. We don't want to go the Paul Ryan route of voucherizing it, privatizing it, but we can make meaningful reforms in Medicare and Medicaid without compromising the integrity of the program, making sure that the beneficiaries are not paying the price for it, except perhaps the high-income beneficiaries. That to me is a reasonable approach. Let me salute Lindsey Graham. What he just said about revenue and taxes needs to be said on his side of the aisle. We need to be honest on our side of the aisle. And as we did under Bowles-Simpson, put everything on the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that include raising the age for Medicare eligibility?

DURBIN: Here's my concern about that, George. What happens to the early retiree who needs health insurance before that person's eligible for Medicare? I had it happen in my family, and I'll bet a lot of your viewers did, as well. We've got to make sure that there is seamless coverage of affordable health insurance for every American. My concern about raising that Medicare retirement age is there will be gaps in coverage or coverage that's way too expensive for seniors to purchase.  

Top Democrats constantly insist that Social Security is just fine, but it's not.  The program faces a $20.5 Trillion unfunded liability, and its payouts began to exceed revenues several years ago.  Liberals claim these realities are "myths," and that the program can be made whole with relatively easy fixes.  So why not propose and enact them?  Never mind that, we're told, Social Security is off the table.  Durbin does accurately point out that Medicare presents a much more serious systemic problem.  He even cites my go-to statistic on the lifespan of the program, noting that if politicians do nothing, Medicare "as we know it" will be insolvent within a dozen years.  He then launches into a wordy monologue about why Democrats oppose Paul Ryan's "voucher" solution (variants of which Ryan has co-authored with two different Democrats), while giving zero specifics (surprise!) about what the Left's alternative might be.  He mutters some banalities that almost amount to hints at means testing, then moves on to the important business of lavishing praise on Linsday Graham for his enlightened willingness to comprimise on revenues.  When George Stephanopolous asks about the possibility of raising the Medicare eligibility age (a long overdue no-brainer in an era of ever-expanding average life expectancy, thanks to medical breakthroughs), Durbin balks.  He has "concerns" about early retirees and continuity, you see.  These aren't entirely frivolous worries, to be sure, but there will always be real people that any proposed change might impact negatively.  Thus, when Democrats talk about their nebulous, detail-free Medicare solutions, they're prescribing yet another magic potion.  Entitlement reforms are going to require sacrifice and aren't going to be seamless for every single person -- but without them, the programs will implode.  Durbin's "12 years" stat demonstrates that he understands this reality on some level, but he and his party just aren't willing to actually do anything about it.  Why?  Because they've got their strongest supporters drawing ideological lines in the sand, because the class warfare "big lie" is irresistable short-term politics, and because -- at least for the moment -- they stand to benefit from their own inaction.  They can revel in their economic do-nothing illiteracy, then point the finger at the other side of the aisle.  The question is when Democrats' ponzi scheme of blame finally collapses.