Kudos to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Last month the paper asked each member of Wisconsin’s congressional delegation to explain how he or she would solve the long-term Social Security and Medicare funding shortfall. Their responses claimed two and a half pages of editorial space in the July 13 issue.
It’s space well spent, for this is a vitally important issue that most politicians prefer to ignore. The Journal Sentinel put them on the spot, though. How good were their responses?
We asked The Heritage Foundation’s Brian Riedl—a Wisconsinite and a “made member” of the Fiscal Wake-up Tour—to grade each lawmaker’s response. Some passed the test; others failed to offer much beyond rhetoric. Here’s Riedl’s assessment:
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Janesville) gave the most detailed response. In fact, Rep. Ryan is the only member of Congress to introduce comprehensive legislation to solve the entire long-term shortfall. It is not a painless proposal – it would redesign federal health, retirement, and tax policy – but it protects benefits for those who need them without taxing the next generation into bankruptcy. Agree or disagree with the plan itself, Rep. Ryan deserves credit for being the only lawmaker offering one. Grade: A
Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-La Crosse) both endorsed legislation creating a bipartisan entitlements commission that would propose a long-term fix, and then require that Congress vote on that proposal. While neither lawmaker indicated which reforms they would like to see in such a package, the commission is a good start. Grade: B
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Middleton), Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Menominee Falls), and Rep. Tom Petri (R-Fond du Lac) all strongly articulated the need for reform. Sen. Feingold focused on the need to slow rising Medicare costs; Rep. Sensenbrenner called on Congress to put politics aside and address the issue, and Rep. Petri summarized the problem and several known proposals. However, none of the lawmakers endorsed specific proposals that would sufficiently close the fiscal gap. Grade: B-
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Milwaukee) displayed a poor understanding of the issue. After understating the size of the Medicare funding shortfall by $25 trillion, he incorrectly asserted that the Social Security Trust Fund will solve the program’s funding problem (Congress already spent the trust fund, leaving only IOUs that must be repaid in new taxes). Sen. Kohl failed to endorse any Social Security solution, and his Medicare proposal of promoting generic drugs would not close more than a small fraction of the long-term gap. Grade: D+
Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee) criticized the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts (though repeal would close only 10 percent of the long-term fiscal gap), and Iraq spending (which is just 3 percent as large as the entitlement unfunded liability). Only then did she address entitlements by vaguely calling for health care reform – without naming a single specific idea. Grade: D
Rep. David Obey (D-Wausau) expressed more concern over the $1 trillion spent in Iraq than Social Security and Medicare’s $43 trillion liability. Rep. Obey downplayed the entitlement funding challenge, called reform advocates “chicken littles” and then proposed universal health care – which would deepen the fiscal hole – before punting all responsibility to solve the entitlement problem to the next president. Not exactly a profile in courage. Grade: D
Rep. Steve Kagen (D-Appleton) gave the most bizarre response of all. Asked how to solve Social Security and Medicare’s deficits, he ignored the question and instead recited unrelated talking points on energy independence, oil drilling, and health care accessibility. Rep. Kagen’s response failed to display even an elementary understanding of Social Security and Medicare reform. Grade: F
Reforming Social Security and Medicare will not be easy or painless, Riedl notes, but delay only worsens the problem. It is time for lawmakers to drop the platitudes and tackle reform. The American people are ready for this debate.