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Congressman Tom Cole

Representing the 4th District of Oklahoma

Time for Entitlement Reform

February 4, 2013
Weekly Columns

In his second inaugural address, President Obama did not utter the word "debt" a single time. While the president had no hesitation discussing policies to increase spending, he remained virtually silent regarding the most important and urgent challenge currently threatening the nation's future.

The second inaugural provided a valuable opportunity for the president to move beyond the empty rhetoric and partisan scare tactics of the campaign and finally be honest with the American people about the unsustainable trajectory of our entitlement programs and their impact on the $16 trillion debt.  It is widely known that Medicare is set to go bankrupt by 2024 followed by Social Security in 2033.  We can only save the programs and reduce their overwhelming burden on the national debt if we act quickly.  Yet instead of proposing solutions, President Obama used his speech to continue to downplay and distort the issue, stating "we reject the belief that America must choose between caring for the generation that built this country and investing in the generation that will build its future."  This might be a moving and profound point if any elected official had ever proposed such a choice, but it exists only in the liberal imagination.

In reality, saving health and retirement programs is the same thing as investing in future generations.  By modernizing Medicare and Social Security, we will ensure that young people have the same opportunities as their parents and grandparents.  If we fail to act, not only will our children and grandchildren be deprived of health and financial security after retirement but their employment options and standard of living will be diminished by the debt crisis certain to commence when entitlement spending completely overwhelms the budget.  Entitlement programs already consume two-thirds of federal spending and will grow ever larger as the Baby Boom generation continues to retire.   Greece's 27 percent unemployment rate tells us everything we need to know about what happens when a government can't afford the benefits it has promised.

Despite the legislative turmoil of the past few months, conditions for significant progress are as favorable as they have been in some time.  The successful overhaul of systems as entrenched and complex as entitlements requires a level of bipartisan cooperation that our current divided government is uniquely equipped to provide. Landmark welfare reform was achieved by President Clinton and a Republican Congress led by Newt Gingrich, while the bipartisan duo of President Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill produced historic tax cuts and spending caps.  The components for the same kind of historic change are in place.  House Republicans are already on record with plans to balance the budget and save Medicare and Social Security for future generations without affecting benefits for anyone at or near retirement age.  Senate Democrats are poised to release their first budget blueprint in almost four years.  The only missing ingredient is presidential leadership.  Although President Obama failed to show political courage in his inaugural speech, he has another chance in the upcoming State of the Union address.  Unless he wants a legacy marred by skyrocketing unemployment and debt crisis, he will seize the moment.