Why Is the GOP Fussing Over Social Security? Medicare Is the Real Problem

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Social Security is fine through 2037, though you wouldn't know it from listening to the Republican presidential field. Not so Medicare.

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If the first two Republican debates are a sign of what we can expect in the next six, we're in for weeks of Groundhog-Day-like wrangling over whether Social Security is unconstitutional, a fraud, a Ponzi scheme, broken, bankrupt, criminal or a "monstrous lie." All of that exaggerates the problems of the system and obscures what candidates should really be talking about, which is Medicare and its threat to the nation's finances.

Mitt Romney thinks he's found the road map to the nomination in what he calls Rick Perry's "frightening" writings on Social Security. But he knows which program is the real problem. "If we make no changes to the current system, payroll taxes would have to increase by 40 percent to meet our Social Security bill in 2040, but the increase to meet Medicare costs in two decades would be a staggering 250 percent," Romney said last year in his book No Apology.

In a CNN poll this month, 55 percent agreed that "Social Security's problems are serious and can be fixed only with major changes to the current system" while another 12 percent said "Social Security's problems are so bad that the system should be replaced." That's fully two-thirds on the very-worried-to-completely-hopeless spectrum.

Yet Social Security is not, repeat not, in crisis. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and others project that if we continue exactly was we are, retirees will receive full benefits through 2037. After that, if nothing changes, payroll taxes collected from the workforce would cover 78 percent of benefits.

That gives us 26 years to tweak the system, assuming we want to preserve it, and everyone knows what the choices are: Raise the percentage of income that's subject to the payroll tax, raise the retirement age for at least some people, change the formula for calculating benefits for the wealthy or for everyone, allow voluntary private accounts. All of these steps pose difficulties from a political standpoint, but they would not necessarily inflict unbearable burdens on future seniors.

It is Medicare that will break the bank, Medicare that is much harder to fix, and Medicare politics that have tied both parties in knots.

President Obama tried to "bend the cost curve" downward on Medicare in his new health law by shaving $500 billion over 10 years from future reimbursements to doctors, hospitals and "Medicare Advantage" programs, the private alternatives that have proved to be more expensive than regular Medicare. He and his party were thanked with a rout at the polls last year. Adding insult to injury, almost every Republican in Congress -- including Michele Bachmann -- voted this year to approve the very same cuts when they voted for the GOP budget drawn up by Rep. Paul Ryan.

That hasn't stopped the entire field from attacking Obama on those future cutbacks. Bachmann has repeatedly said that Obama "stole over $500 billion out of Medicare to switch it over to Obamacare." (Mostly false, Politifact ruled, because some of it goes for new Medicare services and none of it was "stolen").

The politics of Medicare continue to evolve. Democrats won a special House election last spring using the Ryan plan to privatize Medicare as a cudgel against Republicans, but that line of attack didn't work against conservative Bob Turner, who staged an upset this week in the Brooklyn-Queens district long represented by Democrats Anthony Weiner and Charles Schumer. Obama meanwhile will further muddy the issue with proposals for more Medicare cuts, though his party may still be able to draw a bright line over GOP support for switching seniors from government-run Medicare to the private market.

Moderator Wolf Blitzer tried in the CNN-Tea Party Express debate to get candidates to discuss their own plans for Medicare. That led to some extremely abbreviated responses ("Restructure Medicare," Herman Cain said) and to a disproportionate focus on waste, fraud and abuse. "The federal government is such a bad manager of money, that somewhere between $70 billion and $120 billion a year in Medicare and Medicaid is paid to crooks," said Newt Gingrich. "We wrote a book several years ago called 'Stop Paying the Crooks.' I thought it was pretty obvious even for Washington." Perry said he had saved $5.3 billion "just by finding the waste and the fraud in Texas state government. I'm thinking there might be more waste and fraud in the federal government than even there is in the Texas government."

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Jill Lawrence is a national correspondent at National Journal. She was previously a columnist at Politics Daily, national political correspondent at USA Today and national political writer at the Associated Press.

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