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When Should the GOP Bring Up Entitlement Reform Legislation?

10:52 AM, Jan 14, 2011 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
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Ramesh Ponnuru looks at the history of (attempted) entitlement reform and suggests Republicans should wait until they have the presidency to reform Medicare and Social Security:

Would-be reformers should draw two lessons from this history. The first is that reform can’t be sprung on the electorate. Reagan hadn’t campaigned on cutting Social Security in 1980, nor did the Gingrich Republicans promise to reduce the growth of Medicare.

Today is no different: while some Republican candidates in the last election spoke forthrightly about the need to rein in these programs — notably Representative Ryan himself, but also new Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — most of them didn’t.

As a result, if Republicans spend much of the next two years fighting over these programs, voters who depend on them are going to be unpleasantly surprised. Keep in mind that most voters oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare, so they are likely to be very nervous about any proposals to restrain their growth, especially if opponents portray such cuts as excessive. Even worse, most members of Congress are not well informed about these programs, so they’ll have a hard time soothing public anxieties.

The second lesson is that presidential support for reform is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for success. As John Boehner, the new speaker of the House, said himself on election night, governing from Capitol Hill doesn’t work — the president has to set the agenda.

If Mr. Obama delivers a good-faith proposal for Social Security, for example in this month’s State of the Union address, then by all means Republicans should offer a serious counterproposal and, depending on their differences, negotiate. If he doesn’t, then Republicans should wait on a new president in 2013.

But they should do more than wait: in the event of presidential inaction, reformers should blame Mr. Obama for the lack of progress and work to make entitlements a litmus-test issue in the Republican presidential primaries. The goal should be to nominate someone willing to make a strong case for reducing entitlement growth as part of a larger strategy to restore American prosperity.

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