The Corner

Re: The Entitlement Debate

I am with Yuval on this one.

Unless Republican leaders strive to create a coherent strategy on entitlements, particularly Medicare, lawmakers from both parties will exploit this weakness when it comes to today’s spending cuts. 

Cutting spending — discretionary spending — is going to be hard. Appropriators will diligently come up with their line cuts. As soon as Congress goes public with these proposals, elected officials will hear from the aggrieved.

Individual congressmen and -women who aren’t devoted to making the cuts — especially when the cuts affect their districts or the districts of members with whom they trade favors — could instead say: “Look, I just can’t give you this particular [$x million / billion] right now, but I am cooperative and responsible and I get that spending is too high. So I’ll give you the same amount in Medicare cuts as an alternative. That’s where the big problem is, anyway.”

In taking this approach, individual lawmakers would figure that their leadership, terrified of getting too specific in public on entitlement cuts, would stop bothering them. 

Congress used this technique successfully during the Reagan years. Republicans, knowing that Reagan felt vulnerable on elderly-program spending, would suggest entitlement restraint in lieu of other cuts. As Reagan wrote in his diary in March 1985, after winning his historic reelection victory, Republican leaders “want deeper cuts in defense . . . to add back cuts we want to make in domestic spending. They also want to suggest a freeze on the Soc. Security ‘Colas.’ . . . Suggesting a cut in S.S. is to give the Dems. the issue they want for ’86.”

To guard even scant hope of achieving big spending cuts this time around, Republicans have to head off this tactic. They must be able to say to individual members, “Yeah, we like your entitlement-cut proposals. Bring your ideas to the guys working on our bill on that issue. But we still need your discretionary cuts, too.”

— Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal

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