From the so-called Greenspan Commission in the ’80s to the Kerry-Danforth and Thomas-Breaux commissions in the ’90s, official Washington has shown an affinity to push off onto large-scale groups the difficult task to revamp the political hot potato that is entitlement growth.
So when two senior lawmakers introduced a bill last month that would create the National Commission on Entitlement Solvency, which would be charged with keeping Medicare and Social Security in the black, policymakers could be forgiven for letting out an audible groan.
And groan they did. “This plan has too many bells and whistles to be successful,” said former Democratic congresswoman Barbara Kennelly, who now heads the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare as its president and chief executive officer.
Still, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who authored the bill to create a 15-member, bipartisan commission, sounded confident during a Capitol Hill news conference Jan. 22. “Inaction is not an option,” Feinstein said.
The commission would make agreed-to recommendations one year from the law’s date of enactment and every five years thereafter, according to the senators. Congress would be asked to take action on those recommendations.
“The solvency of Medicare and Social Security rank among the highest and most significant problems that face our nation down the line,” Domenici said.
In 2006, 52.3% of federal spending, or $1.42 trillion, went toward Social Security and Medicare, Feinstein said. In 2016, that number is expected to climb to 60.4%, or $2.54 trillion. Projected deficits in both programs will exhaust Medicare in 2018 and Social Security in 2040, according to the Social Security and Medicare Board of Trustees.
But would yet another commission be able to accomplish anything? Chip Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals, said he is skeptical. “You’ve got benefits for the beneficiaries, you got payments and you got taxes,” he said, naming just three Medicare complications that have stumped those who have tried to solve the problem in the past. “No matter how you cut it, when you start getting those three things, there is such ideological and conceptual disagreement of what an entitlement should be. It’s hard to imagine they would come up with something that would be enacted.”
Larry Goldberg, an independent consultant in Oakton, Va., said that typically, the formation of a committee is akin to Congress shrugging its shoulders. “If they don’t have a simple answer, they ask someone else to figure it out and then blame them,” he said.