The Entitlement Crisis

On Meet the Press, Sen. Jim DeMint – widely admired by conservatives and the Tea Party for his passionate advocacy for limited government – spent a good deal of time condemning earmarks. That’s a fine idea, but it would barely begin to right our fiscal imbalance. When asked about cuts in Social Security, however, DeMint was emphatic:

Well, no, we’re not talking about cuts in Social Security. If we can just cut the administrative waste, we can cut hundreds of billions of dollars a year at the federal level. So before we start cutting–I mean, we need to keep our promises to seniors, David, and cutting benefits to seniors is not on the table. …

DeMint has been a relentless critic of big government and has rung the alarm bell on the size of our debt and the deficit. Yet on the overwhelming fiscal threat of our time – the entitlement crisis – DeMint not only doesn’t have anything constructive to say; he actually is arguing against any cuts for Social Security and Medicare. (Bear in mind that entitlements, excluding net interest, account for 56 percent of all federal spending and 14 percent of GDP — up from 10 percent of GDP three years ago.)

DeMint might consider doing two things. The first is to be a bit less sweeping in his condemnation of government. I certainly share his concerns about the size, scope, reach, and cost of the federal government, especially in the Age of Obama. At the same time, precise, rigorous arguments are important, too – and so DeMint and other Republicans need to be careful not to use rhetoric that puts them in the company of “a small breed of men whose passionate distrust for the state has developed into a theology of sorts.” (The words are William F. Buckley Jr.’s).

At the same time, DeMint should do more to close the gap between his words and his willingness to act on his words. It is simply not tenable for public officials to portray themselves as courageous voices for fiscal sanity while simultaneously fencing off cuts and reforms for entitlements. This doesn’t argue for recklessness or doing everything all at once. And it certainly doesn’t mean promoting austerity at the expense of pro-growth economic policies. But it does mean one should not declare entitlement programs off-limits. We have to deal with them; there’s no way around it. So there’s no point in making things more difficult or making commitments that are contrary to the national interest. Those who do open themselves to the charge that they are fundamentally unserious on this matter.

On the same program, by the way, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was interviewed by David Gregory. In contrast to DeMint, Christie was able to say this:

We told everybody there has to be shared sacrifice among everyone, and let me be specific. We cut every department of state government. We cut funding to K to 12 education. We are proposed real pension and benefit reforms on public sector workers, increasing the retirement age, eliminating COLAs, things that are really going to bring the pension problem back under control. We cut all of this spending in the state in every state department, David, every state department. From environmental protection, to military and veterans affairs, all the way through had to sustain a cut. Those are the type of things you have to do to show people you really mean shared sacrifice. Everyone came to the table and everybody had to contribute.

When asked how he’s advising Republicans on Capitol Hill, Christie said, “What I told them was they’d better come up with a plan that’s credible like we did in New Jersey, and the public’s going to be able to smell real quickly if you’re not credible.”

Indeed. And credibility, once lost, is hard to regain.