Republicans Finally Take On Entitlement Reform

The GOP took a step forward on tackling entitlement spending, narrowly squeaking out a victory in the House yesterday on a $40-billion cut to Medicare and other federal programs. It represents the first effort in almost a decade to reform programs that threaten to grow unchecked until they gobble up almost the entire federal budget:

House Republicans eked out a victory on a $39.5 billion budget-cutting package on Wednesday, with a handful of skittish Republicans switching their votes at the last minute in opposition to reductions in spending on health and education programs. …
The measure represents the first major effort by lawmakers since 1997 to cut the growth of so-called entitlement programs, including student loans, crop subsidies and Medicaid, in which spending is determined by eligibility criteria. It passed 216 to 214, with 13 Republicans voting against. The Senate, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting the decisive vote, approved the spending cuts in December. The bill now goes to the White House for Mr. Bush’s signature.
Coming on the heels of the State of the Union address, the vote was a critical test of Mr. Bush’s ability to hold his fractured party together.

Roy Blunt helped reel in the vote, counting carefully enough to release thirteen GOP moderates to cast opposing votes in order to protect their chances in the next election. His leadership on this issue may have made the difference in getting the bill passed and into Bush’s hands. Bush is expected to sign off immediately on the bill.
That doesn’t mean the debate will end on this. Democrats have already begun to pull out individual provisions of the budget cuts to castigate the GOP as unfeeling towards the sick and elderly. The AARP has already begun a campaign against the rollback, and it will likely continue that campaign through the election cycle. The retirement lobby has a vested interest in the status quo, and it will fight to keep every dime of entitlements it can and to expand them where possible, no matter what the fiscal projections demonstrate.
This will be the challenge for entitlement reform. When the Bush administration took on Social Security reform in the mildest way possible — transferring payments into private accounts in order to protect contributions from being raided and to minimize the long term contrbutions needed by the federal government — it caused such a firestorm that Congress ignored the entire problem for another critical year. Now with Medicare and other aid programs, the cuts affect the amount of services that get delivered by the federal government. The nanny-care supporters will drag out every personal anecdote they can find in order to block these cuts and the ones that must be made later in order to keep entitlement spending from careening out of control.
Porkbusting could save us $14 billion for one budget cycle. Entitlement reform requires us to cut back programs over a long period of time, and could save trillions if done properly — but the American people have to demonstrate the will to make some hard choices about the size and reach of the federal government and the amount of handouts we can afford to give. Unfortunately, politicians do not often get elected for saying “no” to their constituents. We need to educate the voters about the danger of out-of-control entitlements so that we can avoid that problem entirely.