Democrats were given a political gift by the Tea Party-led federal government shutdown. Whether Tea Party loyalists accept it or not, the shutdown damaged the Republican Party.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recalled an old Kentucky saying: “There is no education in the second kick of a mule.” The second kick to Republicans would be another government shutdown, and McConnell has stated that it will not happen.
BUT THE DEMOCRATS should not feel complacent. This stumble from the right has limited staying power, and the electorate’s view inevitably will shift. While the Tea Party and establishment Republicans attempt to resolve their differences, Democrats should work to repair their own image.
And nothing is more closely identified with Democrats than entitlements. While the country is distracted by budget stalemates and government shutdowns, entitlements relentlessly drive up our debt, are fiscally unsustainable, and need overhaul. No Americans want to see their tax dollars squandered, and overly generous payments, fraud and abuse seriously undercut well-intended entitlements.
As examples, two components of the Social Security program are badly in need of repair.
The first example is a policy issue: how to make Social Security Old Age Insurance solvent for the long term. By 2033, the Old Age Insurance Trust Fund will be expended, resulting in a 25 percent benefit reduction to seniors if nothing is done.
Part of the funding shortfall is caused because of the increased longevity my generation enjoys. Our total future benefits will be far greater than anticipated when Social Security was last revised in 1983. We seniors should help pay for these increased benefits by accepting smaller cost-of-living increases.
The president has proposed such a plan by using a lower measure of inflation, the chained Consumer Price Index. But House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the most liberal Democrats have objected to the chained CPI. They have proposed increasing the Social Security tax rate on current workers as the primary solution for the funding shortfall.
BUT THIS IS unfair for working people, who already are being saddled with our accumulated $17 trillion debt. An increase in Social Security tax would simply add to the unprecedented and immoral intergenerational transfer of wealth from today’s workers to today’s seniors.
Democrats, working people, seniors and all Americans should support the president’s proposal to reduce future Social Security benefit increases by adopting the chained CPI.
The second example is the troubled Social Security Disability Insurance program. SSDI funding comes from the 6.2 percent Social Security tax paid by workers and matched by employers.
Since 1980, the percent of the working-age population receiving SSDI has doubled from 2.4 percent to 4.7 percent. As a result, the separate SSDI Trust Fund will run out by 2017.
A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found that much of the increase was caused by events external to SSDI, such as an aging population and the recession. But about half of the enrollment increase was unexplained, and generally was attributed to a greater SSDI benefit, and a doubling of the percentage of SSDI claimants being approved because of relaxed criteria.
Do all nine million current beneficiaries deserve SSDI?
An example of fraud occurred when a Social Security administrative law judge in West Virginia granted nearly every appeal for those applying for SSDI. An investigation showed that from about 2005 until 2011, he was collaborating with a lawyer who specialized in obtaining SSDI benefits for clients. How difficult could it have been for managers to detect this behavior earlier and stop the fraud?
THE CURRENT dysfunction of the Obamacare website is another example of technical incompetency damaging an administration and a political party. Democratic leaders should invest greater effort in ensuring that entitlement policies, and competent execution of those policies, give confidence to the American people that our tax dollars are being spent wisely.
There are ample opportunities for repair.
(The writer is a retired U.S. Navy officer. He lives and writes in Savannah.)