Less than a month after the Senate rejected a proposal for a bipartisan entitlement commission, President Obama has created his own version by executive order. It is not, of course, called an “entitlement commission”–that unsavory term has been banished from the political lexicon, since it clearly frightens the geezers. Instead, it is called the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. (Who wouldn’t support that?) The shorthand names are the “deficit commission” and the “debt panel.” This last term is remarkably similar to the much-maligned “death panels”–which seems appropriate, since its primary purpose is to pull the plug on old-age entitlements. Despite protestations to the contrary, the commission exists primarily to make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
The commission’s slant is evident from the choice of its two co-chairs: former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson, a long-time foe of entitlements, and Erskine Bowles, the middle-right former Clinton chief of staff. The rest of the 18-member commission will include 6 Republican and 6 Democratic members of Congress, and four more members named by Obama. They are supposed to make a report and recommendations to the president in December, after the fall elections, and Obama is expected to forward the recommendations to Congress.
In the best-case scenario, Congress will do the same thing it has done with all of Obama’s other proposed reforms–i.e. nothing. Because if it acts at all, it will almost certainly decide to pay down the deficit at the expense of the social safety net. While Social Security may be the proverbial “third rail” of politics, the other debt-reducing options–raising taxes on the rich, or making corporations pay their fair share–will be seen as even more deadly in the current political climate.
An aggressive move to cut entitlements is, of course, a long-cherished conservative goal. The Heritage Foundation has been promoting the idea for decades, and was a major cheerleader for creation of a Congressional entitlement commission. Billionaire anti-entitlement activist Pete Peterson has bankrolled a huge lobbying effort for a commission that could ready the cuts, then ram them through Congress on a fast track yes or no vote. When that idea ran into heavy opposition in the Senate, Obama came up with his comparatively toothless version.
The driving force behind the commission—in addition to Peterson’s determined lobbying– is a group of conservative Blue Dog Democrats, some of whom would most likely be just as happy to see Social Security privatized. They will likely join with Republicans to support cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security.
This same alliance will also be key to a scaled-back health care reform, which looks to bypass altogether the so-called liberals in Congress. Instead, it depends upon senior conservatives in the Republican party, led by retiring New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg. Gregg has said he thinks the health care system needs changing, and he wants to engage in “constructive dialogue” with the president on reform. But any plan Gregg champions will have to be relatively meager and inexpensive. The fiscally conservative Gregg joined with Democrat Kent Conrad to support the Congressional version of a debt commission, and he now seems to making common cause with the perennial Democratic health care compromiser, Max Baucus.
The long and the short of this situation is that the Democratic administration, along with a small group of conservative Democrats in Congress, may make considerable headway toward doing what neither Ronald Reagan nor George W. Bush was able to pull off. They will likely make cuts to Social Security, while at the same time advancing Obama’s government-subsidized “automatic IRA” scheme, which would divert people’s earnings into 401K-style retirement accounts. These, of course, would be invested by Wall Street, helping to rebuild the finance industry. So in the end, we could see a de facto privatization of a portion of Social Security–the ultimate conservative dream, brought to us by the Democrats.
By the same token, the Democratic-led health care reform is likely to bring about some cuts to Medicare and Medicaid–the only single-payer health care this nation has ever known. It will do so while preserving the power and wealth of the health care profiteers who are largely responsible for skyrocketing costs. The corporations, once again, are set to emerge victorious.
Meanwhile, the old, sick, disabled, and poor, who rely on entitlement programs, will bear the weight of the national debt. The low- and middle-income people still reeling from the recession–who need more, not less, government spending–will be left out in the cold, victims of what the Center for Economic and Policy Research calls “the deficit hawks who distract the public and policy makers from the policies necessary to bring the economy back to full employment.”
The people and policies responsible for running up the deficit look like the only ones who won’t be taking a hit. In a report released on Wednesday called “Where Today’s Large Deficits Come From,” the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities added up the numbers and found: “In fact, the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the economic downturn together explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years.”
Born in 1936, James Ridgeway has been reporting on politics for more than 45 years. He is currently Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones, and recently wrote a blog on the 2008 presidential election for the Guardian online. He previously served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice; wrote for Ramparts and The New Republic; and founded and edited two independent newsletters, Hard Times and The Elements.
Ridgeway is the author of 16 books, including The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All for Sale: The Control of Global Resources, and Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture. He co-directed a companion film to Blood in the Face and a second documentary film, Feed, and has co-produced web videos for GuardianFilms.
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