It’s getting harder for anyone to argue with a straight face that the Obama administration isn’t making substantial moves to draw Republican members of Congress into a real deficit-cutting agreement.
President Obama has proposed to slow entitlement spending through a mechanism known as “chained CPI” and to further means test Medicare by raising premiums for wealthier recipients.
But the proposals are causing problems among some of the Republican Party’s more opportunistic members and also, of course, among Democrats, who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that waves of retiring baby boomers are eroding these emblematic programs.
The Democrats’ resistance, however unhelpful, was also predictable. They will have to be dragged kicking and screaming to any compromise that reduces benefits or raises user costs.
Less predictable was the Republican reaction to Obama’s chained CPI proposal. CPI is the Consumer Price Index and it is used to calculate increases in benefits for federal programs, including Medicare and Social Security. It focuses on urban wage earners and clerical workers. Chained CPI factors in how consumer spending decisions are affected by changing prices of everyday items. As a consequence, it would restrain increases in benefits – something you would think Republicans would favor.
Greg Walden, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, claimed Obama was “trying to balance this budget on the backs of seniors.”
Rep. Chris Collins, R-Clarence, had a similar reaction. “If you change the calculation of the Consumer Price Index and how you calculate inflation, that’s going to continue to pinch our seniors who, come the end of the month, the stories I hear, are having trouble putting food on the table,” said Collins.
What is happening is obvious. Republicans have been stung repeatedly in their efforts to recalibrate entitlement programs; indeed, Collins ran for Congress proclaiming that need. But that was before Republicans lost their bid for the White House and gave up seats in both houses of Congress.
Some reports suggest that Republicans are worried that Obama’s offer is a trap: Get them to agree to entitlement cuts now and pillory them for it later. It seems unlikely, but this is Washington, so it’s possible.
The problem is, that doesn’t matter. Republicans cannot, with straight faces, suddenly come out against that which they have been loudly and unequivocally supporting for years: action on entitlements. Life is full of risk, and this is one. Unless Republicans want to send the message that they are only for what will get them elected, they need to reconsider their approach to this offer. House Speaker John Boehner rebuked Walden for his comments, though not convincingly.
Republicans do seem more open to the idea of raising premiums for higher-income users of Medicare, or at least they are more interested in giving it honest consideration. It may or may not be the best way of dealing with the difficult problems the program faces, but it – and the chained CPI proposal – are, at a minimum, public attempts by the president to break free of Democratic dogma.
If Obama’s proposals aren’t genuine, he will pay a political price for that. If they are, Republicans may pay the price if they don’t take him seriously. Because then, who will take the Republicans seriously?