Dilemma

03.01.13

Republicans and Entitlements

Here's an interesting item from Mike Allen's Playbook this morning, from what he characterizes as a Republican congressman speaking on background to the Business Roundtable yesterday:

“By the way, this notion that Republicans are all eager to reform entitlements -- folks, Democrats have it all wrong.  Republicans would love to avoid the issue, politically. … I love this poll: Tea party folks in Ohio, ‘Do you think your Social Security benefits should be reduced given the record debt and deficits?’ 85 percent ‘no.’ … [T]his is not an issue that anybody wants to take on, politically. It is the third rail of American politics, still. Is it easier? Yeah, probably than it was a couple of decades ago. But not much.”

I've always kind of wondered about this. This isn't the first poll to give us such findings. It's pretty well established that even most conservatives don't want to touch Social Security. So all these Republicans baying about entitlements...they're not talking to their constituents, if these polls are correct, so to whom are they talking? I suppose first, establishment Washington, which hungers for entitlement cuts more than any other single item. And second, the right-wing political class, operatives and people at think tanks, who want the welfare state to wither away.

The vast chasm between these two groups and regular Republicans is something that Republican lawmakers can't easily bridge. Maybe they can't bridge it at all. There is after all no position on entitlements that can satisfy both groups. So I wonder, when push came to shove, how many Republicans would vote. For all the noise they make, would they really vote with the establishment and against their constituents?

This is one issue on which I do believe that Obama has shown insufficient leadership. He conveys the impression of trying to avoid it. I would like to see him speak to the American people from the Oval Office or the Roosevelt Room and say plainly, here are our choices. And let people mull it over.

As my regulars know, I am a proponent of (guess what?) raising the payroll tax. Not the amount of 6.2 percent, but the cap--it now stops at $113,000 or so. I think it should go up to a much higher level, at least twice that. I really think it's the fairest answer. Social Security's problems are modest anyway compared to Medicare, and tinkering with the cap should fix a good portion of it.

It seems that a very strong majority of Americans support Social Security and want it to continue. It also seems that this is a tax people don't mind paying quite so much because they see that they get something tangible out of it: They pay taxes, they get benefits. Most get more than they pay in, what with so many people living into their 80s these days.

But I suppose it really comes down to: Would people who make between $113,000 and $226,000 be willing to see their FICA tax double? Don't know on that one. Economists fear they'll get mad and start asking for more, and then you really start messing around with the whole system.

In any case, if there ever is a grand bargain that includes Social Security cuts, the Republicans will own the idea, because they'll be the ones bragging about getting that concession, and it won't be good for them.