Pandering to Seniors

Responsible budgeting is always challenging – but it is particularly so when the discussion centers on certain “third rail" issues like seniors, veterans, or taxes.

There have recently been a number of troubling signs that pandering to seniors may lead to new, damaging budget policies. RNC Chairman, Michael Steele, recently wrote in the Washington Post about the “Seniors' Health Care Bill of Rights

,” a silly and meaningless political pledge veiled as a promise to give seniors access to health care (which they already have) and protect them from having to pay for any expansion in health care for others. One can easily see the intent to use this pledge against Members who are willing to support sensible Medicare reforms that have to be made in order to save the program—a reality that will be twisted in 30-second sound bites.

At the same time, there is growing talk among a number of Democratic lawmakers about enacting an ad hoc COLA adjustment for Social Security, though there is no economic justification for such a raise in benefits. As Chuck Blahous explained in the Post, a freeze in the COLA next year reflects low inflation, and seniors are actually still benefiting from an overly generous increase this past year as well as special tax breaks they received as part of the stimulus package.  (Andrew Biggs has an amusing companion post alluding to the high level of emotionalism that surrounds the issues of pension policy and COLA adjustments, in particular – hilarious, for budget humor at least.) And sure to be leading the charge on this one, the AARP will be holding a policy forum, “What Happened To My Social Security COLA?” which doesn’t sound like a balanced discussion on the massive fiscal pressure facing the country and the leading role Social Security and Medicare play in the imbalances.
With deficits on course to add more than $10 trillion to the debt over the coming decade, we are going to have to confront budget choices in a far more realistic manner than by pandering to certain groups. Seniors receive more in direct benefits from the government than any other group and it is their benefits that are growing the fastest. Any objective assessment of our fiscal challenges would conclude that seniors will have to be part of the solution.