National Voices: Yoo-hoo ... Wrong target
by The Chicago Tribune
September 23, 2013 10:51 PM | 1278 views | 0 0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
“It’s total atrophy. We’re earning our 11 percent popularity (rating). It’s easier to talk about Obamacare than the major sources of our problems.”

—U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) to The Washington Post

With each second of each minute of each hour, American taxpayers burrow ever deeper into debt. As our population ages, Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid are pushing the government’s publicly held debt toward 100 percent of our gross domestic product — a burden equal to all that our economy produces. Yet official Washington instead is focused on a campaign to withhold funding from yet another entitlement program, the one scheduled to move into high gear come Oct. 1.

As critics of Obamacare — we’ve backed a delay in the law — we understand the impulse to reshape a new program that really isn’t ready for its launch. What we don’t understand is how the effort to kill Obamacare has eclipsed concern about the existing entitlement programs that are relentlessly shoving the cost of what the government spends today onto our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. With interest compounded. Over decades.

On Friday, the House voted 230-189 to send the Senate a spending bill that excludes Obamacare.

That raises the prospects of a partial government shutdown if Congress fails to approve by Sept. 30 the one-third of the federal budget that has to be renewed each fiscal year. (The rest of federal spending essentially is on autopilot. The shutdown would apply only to nonessential functions; the government would continue Social Security and other entitlements, and agencies such as the FBI, Border Patrol and Transportation Security Administration would remain open.)

How independent-minded are our members of both parties? A grand total of two Democrats and one Republican diverged from their respective caucuses on the House vote. Hard-headedness on spending is a bipartisan affliction: Recall that on March 23 the Democratic-controlled Senate passed its first formal budget in, um, four years.

Remember, too, that a bipartisan congressional abdication of duty got all of us buried beneath today’s federal debt. That total has almost reached $17 trillion-with-a-t, equivalent to more than four full years of today’s federal spending. Last week the Congressional Budget Office issued frightening projections on where that number goes from here. Annual deficits as a percent of our gross domestic product will dip until 2015, then escalate. Total publicly held debt will trough in 2018 and then soar to heights seen only during the emergency that was World War II.

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget synthesizes the core truth of the CBO’s menacing projections: “Lawmakers have done nothing to slow the growth of entitlement programs over the coming decades as the baby boom population retires and health care costs continue to rise.” And CBO’s projections exclude several factors, such as the economic costs of so much debt, that could push our borrowing total even higher.

But what’s the rush, eh? An annual report of federal trustees, issued May 31, predicts that the Social Security Disability Insurance program will exhaust its trust fund in 2016. The main Social Security trust fund runs insolvent in 2033. Medicare? The hospital insurance trust fund goes insolvent in 2026 — sooner if Congress keeps reneging on threats to cut physician reimbursements.

Why will programs that thrived for decades now be unable to pay full benefits? Easy: We’ll soon have one-third of our population retired for, on average, the final one-third of their lives. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce calculates that while the number of Americans ages 65 and older jumps 75 percent in this decade and the next, the number of working-age Americans paying into entitlements rises by only 7 percent.

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