Debt Ceiling Talks: Why Aren't Entitlements on the Table?

A deal would be the start, not the end, of an uphill climb to control federal entitlement spendingnj_entitlements_6-24_banner.jpg

The bipartisan budget talks led by Vice President Joe Biden hit a speed bump on Thursday when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, (R-Va.), declared that it was time for President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner to negotiate directly. But many of the key players remain cautiously optimistic that the effort will eventually produce an agreement to meaningfully reduce Washington's projected deficit over the next decade.

Then the hard work will begin.

Democrats and Republicans in the talks both appear to have accepted the goal of matching any increase in the debt ceiling with a dollar-for-dollar reduction in the next decade's federal deficit. If the negotiators hit that standard, the discussions could produce as much as $2 trillion in deficit reduction over 10 years (as Cantor himself acknowledged). That's not enough to prevent the federal debt from rising, but it is a reasonable first step--and certainly more than seemed possible when the two sides first convened.

Still, insiders believe that the talks are likely to find those savings mostly by squeezing domestic and defense discretionary spending, while moving only modestly to restructure entitlement programs and the tax code. In one sense, that's understandable: Both parties are reluctant to settle those critical choices until they learn whether the 2012 election increases their leverage. But taxes and entitlements are unavoidably the key to stabilizing the long-term debt. That means, whatever happens in the current talks, Washington will need to confront those explosive issues again, probably in 2013.

The two issues present different challenges. On taxes, the dilemma is political, not intellectual. There's not much mystery about how to raise revenue: Washington can increase tax rates, eliminate tax breaks, or impose new levies (such as a carbon or consumption tax). Nor should there be much mystery about the need to do so. Despite the fiscal pressures created by an aging society, federal receipts are now at their lowest level since 1950 when measured as a share of the economy. The problem is building majority support, in Congress and among the populace, for raising more revenue--particularly when so many congressional Republicans have pledged to oppose any tax increase.

On entitlements, the problem is both political and intellectual. The greatest source of pressure on entitlement spending is health care costs, particularly for the elderly. Medicare's trustees recently projected that the number of seniors in the program will grow from about 49 million now to 85 million in 2035, a 75 percent increase. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office this week forecast that the growing elderly population, combined with rising health care costs, will increase federal health spending (mostly for Medicare) as a share of the economy by two-thirds through 2035. Nothing else, CBO says, will contribute nearly as much to rising federal outlays.

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Ronald Brownstein is the editorial director of National Journal. More

Ronald Brownstein, a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of presidential campaigns, is National Journal Group's editorial director, in charge of long-term editorial strategy. He also writes a weekly column and regularly contributes other pieces for both National Journal and The Atlantic, and coordinates political coverage and activities across publications produced by Atlantic Media.

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