Politics Trumps Policy

I imagine most Americans didn’t even notice, but a decision by the President last week provided more confirmation that Republicans and Democrats are just not able to work together, and that Barack Obama has not kept his most basic promise from his 2008 campaign – that he would be a leader who would change the culture in Washington, DC and bring the two parties together.

If there is one thing reasonable people should be able to agree on – and multiple bi-partisan groups have indeed done so – it is the fact that our federal debt is unsustainable and out of control.  At over $17 trillion and rising, our debt is now equivalent to 74% of our GDP, and will reach 100% by the middle of next decade.

Solving this problem before we consign our children and grandchildren to a bleak fiscal future requires addressing one unavoidable issue: the rising cost of entitlements, mainly Social Security and Medicare.  These programs, which so many Americans depend on, cannot continue without significant reforms.  Who says so?  The Trustees of Social Security and Medicare:

Neither Medicare nor Social Security can sustain projected long-run programs in full under currently scheduled financing, and legislative changes are necessary to avoid disruptive consequences for beneficiaries and taxpayers. If lawmakers take action sooner rather than later, more options and more time will be available to phase in changes so that the public has adequate time to prepare. Earlier action will also help elected officials minimize adverse impacts on vulnerable populations, including lower-income workers and people already dependent on program benefits.

One smart – and fair – reform is to more accurately measure the inflation index which is used to determine annual cost-of-living increases (known as “chained CPI”). Such a change would save billions of dollars by very slightly reducing future benefits – and not cutting those benefits, as demagogues on the Left charge.  President Obama has supported this change – until he let partisan politics get the better of his thinking last week.

Fix the Debt, a bipartisan campaign to support debt reduction, wrote a frank blog post in response to Obama’s about face entitled “Politics Trumps Policy

It was reported Thursday that the president’s fiscal Year 2015 budget request due to be released on March 4 will not include a proposal to institute a more accurate gauge of inflation that was included in last year’s budget submission. The decision to backtrack underscores the election-year political calculus that will likely preclude substantive action on any important issues this year.

Switching to the chained CPI can reduce the deficit because it will reduce the growth of cost-of-living adjustments in federal programs like Social Security and will also raise revenue. It was included in the president’s budget request last year on the condition that closing some tax loopholes also be agreed to. Republicans in Congress never took the deal. That offer will not be in the upcoming budget, although a White House spokesman said the bargain is still on the table if Republicans agree to increased revenues.

The decision to exclude the proposal from the budget was based on political factors. This is an election year with control of Congress at stake and Democrats did not want to be associated with an idea that slows the growth of Social Security benefits and pressured the president not to offer it.

Giving in to such blatant political calculations is disappointing, especially from a president who campaigned on changing the culture of Washington. We need real leadership in order to complete the changes necessary to put the country on a sustainable fiscal course. As we said in a statement:

The withdrawal by the President on this specific issue, and his general pivot away from focusing on the nation’s medium and long-term fiscal challenges, reflects a dangerous trend.

Reaching agreement on a comprehensive debt deal will require consideration of all policy options and compromises by both sides. While we welcome today’s statements from the administration indicating they remain open to supporting chained CPI in the context of a bipartisan deficit reduction agreement, the nation needs the President to lead on this issue. The clear pullback on his part is a disturbing sign that he will not.

The decision is a clear signal that the spirit of bipartisan compromise necessary to achieve any major breakthrough will not be available this year as both parties position themselves for the voting in November. This sad reality means that little will likely be accomplished on any issue this year.

“Little will likely be accomplished on any issue this year.”  That is the sad reality in Washington DC, and Olympia.  Debt reduction is already dead in Washington DC.  Immigration reform is on life support.  In Olympia, no one believes there will be progress on transportation, or an education funding plan that fulfills our state constitution mandate to adequately fund public education.

As Americans, we get the government we demand.  Elections matter. Smarter government means electing serious leaders who will reach across the political aisle to pass real reforms that solve big problems.  This year, when candidates ask for your vote, ask them one question:  “Will you work with members of both parties, agree to compromise, and deal with real issues?”

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Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Former State Representative, County Councilman, and GOP State Chairman. Now working as a Public Affairs Consultant, Senior Advisor to SPI Randy Dorn, and Political Commentator on KING and KCTS TV and Crosscut.com