How About A Debate Over America’s Future Prosperity?

If journalists would like to ask actual substantive questions for a change at the GOP debate in Milwaukee, they could start by asking about the biggest threat to our nation’s future security–the burgeoning entitlement monster.

Fox Business is the ideal sponsor for such a debate. There are huge business and economic implications of the unrestrained growth of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security. The behemoth programs threaten our national security and our children’s economic future.

Three of the presidential candidates who will be on the stage have offered serious reform proposals–Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio, and most recently former Gov. Jeb Bush.

“If we do not have an honest conversation about what it will take to protect Medicare and Social Security, we fail seniors and we will fail the next generation of Americans,” Bush wrote when he released his plan.

Rubio, in a plan announced last year, says, “When it comes to a broad and comprehensive Medicare reform plan, let’s learn from the mistakes of ObamaCare and the successes of programs such as Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D.”

Gov. Christie warned of the “explosion of national debt and demand for higher taxes that unrestrained growth of these entitlement programs will create.”

The threat is very real: Without reform, Medicare and Social Security benefits will be slashed, taxes will soar, and younger people paying into the system now will get little or nothing back from the programs.

Questioners in the Tuesday debate would see many common threads among these three proposals and could elicit information about how the candidates would explain to the American people the urgent need for entitlement reform.

Key convergences:

  • Raising the retirement age: With fewer younger workers to support the huge Baby Boom generation now entering retirement, Social Security is on a one-way path to insolvency. All of the candidates would gradually raise the retirement age for younger workers, reflecting today’s much greater life expectancy than when Social Security was created in 1935.
  • Encouraging continued work by retirees: The candidates also would provide incentives for retirees to continue to work by reducing their payroll taxes and other measures. Currently, the government reduces Social Security benefits for retirees making more than $15,720 a year. Rubio’s and Bush’s plans would eliminate this reduction, and Bush also would eliminate the 6.2% individual side of the payroll tax for seniors who continue to work. Christie and Rubio would eliminate both the employer and employee share of the payroll tax – 12.4%.
  • Giving seniors more choice of health coverage by providing a government payment that allows them to choose the Medicare plan that works best for them: The three candidates would move toward the premium support system championed by House Speaker Paul Ryan and other thoughtful Democratic and Republican leaders. Both Medicare Advantage and Medicare Part D provide models of expanding health choices for seniors and normalizing government spending through consumer choice and competition.
  • More means testing of Medicare and Social Security for wealthier seniors: Bush would reduce the level of government subsidies for both Medicare and Social Security for higher-income seniors to put the programs on a more sustainable financial path. All three want wealthier seniors to pay more to assure more economic security for those at the lower-end of the income scale.
  • Providing new ways for workers to save for their retirement: Bush’s plan would allow seniors to continue to contribute to Health Savings Accounts, give small businesses a chance to pool together to access a single retirement plan for their workers to cut costs and paperwork, and make it easier for workers to save for their own retirement. Rubio would open the federal Thrift Savings Plan to the American people.
  • Provide a grant to the states to tackle Medicaid reform: The two former governors not surprisingly believe that the states could do a better job than the federal government of structuring Medicaid to provide better and more economic health services to lower-income Americans. Bush and Christie call for a per-capita allocation to the states.

It is clear there is convergence by these thoughtful candidates around core policy issues. A good debate could be stimulated with other GOP candidates who have a more Malthusian perspective, including former Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Sen. Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump who resist the truth of the desperate need for entitlement reform.

And the long knives are sure to come out when these issues are debated during the general election campaign. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton already is accusing Republicans of plans to “cut benefits for the elderly and the poor.”

In fact, inaction is the surest path to harming the most vulnerable in our society by not addressing the crucial need to tackle entitlement reform. The only way for to protect them is to strengthen the safety net by providing new incentives for those who are able to continue to carry their own weight so those who need help are protected.

We are on track to spend more than 70% of the federal budget on entitlement programs. Small changes can lead to big savings over time. Making no changes to the programs means that these programs will gobble up more and more federal revenues, leaving less and less for national defense, transportation, and other vital federal roles, and forcing the next generation to bear a crushing tax burden that would cripple economic growth.

Let’s see if the Fox Business questioners can get themselves to ask questions like these instead of burning issues involving fantasy football.

(Disclaimer: I advise Jeb Bush on his health reform proposals.)

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About the author

Grace-Marie Turner is president of the Galen Institute, a public policy research organization that she founded in 1995 to promote an informed debate over free-market ideas for health reform. Full biography