The Magazine

Budget in the Balance

The GOP gambles on entitlement reform.

Apr 11, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 29 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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John Boehner, who had previously indicated an openness to entitlement reform, was angry that a president who had lectured Republicans thought he could get away with a transparently unserious approach to entitlements. In a February 13 appearance on Meet the Press, Boehner surprised even some members of his own caucus when he announced: “You’ll see our budget where, I’ve got to believe, we’re going to deal with the entitlement problem.” 

Not to be outdone, the following day Majority Leader Eric Cantor reiterated that call, promising that the GOP budget would be a “serious document that will reflect the type of path we feel we should be taking to address the fiscal situation, including addressing entitlement reforms, unlike the president did in his budget.” That evening, at a Republican whip meeting, the House majority whip, Kevin McCarthy, formally notified his caucus that the Republican budget would include entitlement reform. 

Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and several other strong conservatives, are more cautious. Their argument is simple. Republicans only have a majority in the House, and real reform cannot happen unless the GOP wins the Senate and the White House in 2012. Getting specific on entitlement reforms now makes that less likely. 

“There’s more willingness on the House side,” says DeMint. “Paul Ryan has shown real leadership on the issue. He’s confident in what he believes, and he explains it well. Our leadership is much more reserved. They feel there is no need to get specific when the president isn’t specific with us. Some of us feel, individually if not as a conference, that in order to be credible with our budget numbers we have to include entitlement reform.”

It’s hard to overstate the significance of this moment. By including numbers in the budget that assume real reform, Republicans have obligated themselves to sell voters on a way to meet those objectives. Senators who prefer to keep their heads down and avoid specifics will find it increasingly difficult to do so as reporters ask whether they agree with Ryan’s targets and reforms. 

The same will be true of presi-dential candidates. Reporters will ask those questions, and so will voters. 

“I think Iowa Republicans are expecting to hear specifics from presidential candidates on entitlement reform,” says Matt Strawn, chairman of the Iowa Republican party and host of the first GOP presidential contest next winter. “Caucus-going Republicans are going to insist on seeing the details of entitlement reform proposals to see that you’re serious about tackling the largest fiscal issue facing this country. A strong message on that has to be part of a successful presidential campaign.”

Polling on the issue suggests that while most voters understand the problem, they remain divided on possible solutions. A Gallup poll from October illustrates the challenge. Asked whether the cost of major entitlements “will create major economic problems,” 77 percent of respondents said they would. Just 18 percent said no. But only 31 percent of those surveyed said the government should cut benefits to address the issue, while 66 percent said it shouldn’t. Similarly, 42 percent favored raising taxes and 56 percent were opposed.

A poll taken last month by Resurgent Republic, a Republican group, was slightly more encouraging but made clear the challenges Republicans face by taking on the issue. By 54 percent to 39 percent, voters agreed that elected officials should make benefit changes to Social Security now to preserve it for those 55 years old and under. But given a choice between Congressman A, who favors taking Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid “off the table” to avoid “balancing the budget on the backs of our seniors and the poor,” and Congressman B, who says we cannot balance the budget without tackling those three programs because they take up more than half of all domestic spending, more voters sided with Congressman A—by 53 percent to 41 percent. (Independents agreed with Congressman A in roughly the same proportions.) 

If Republicans want to know how to talk about entitlement reform, their freshman senator from Florida provides a good model. In a debate on Fox News Sunday in March 2010, Marco Rubio explicitly endorsed the bold reforms in Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap,” including individual Social Security accounts for future retirees. He declared that he would be open to raising the retirement age and making cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security. 

“I think all of that has to be on the table, including the way we index increases in cost of living. All of these issues have to be on the table. They have to be options that I would be open to. They are included in the Ryan Roadmap. I think it’s the right approach to Social Security reform.”

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