There's No Way Congress Is Going to Fix Entitlements

Published Jan 3, 2018. By Ronald Brownstein.

House Speaker Paul Ryan may think otherwise, but it’s likely the tax bill that he helped drive through Congress last month has ruled out any serious effort to address the growing costs of federal entitlement programs for the elderly.

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“The tax bill has made it more difficult both on the substantive and political side,” said Robert Bixby, the longtime executive director of the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group focused on deficit reduction. “In taking a one-sided approach, the Republicans were able to get what they wanted in terms of a tax cut, but they made it much more difficult to get any entitlement reform.”

But on both substantive and political grounds, the GOP tax bill has obliterated that possibility. By increasing the debt so much, the bill may force a future Congress to raise taxes just to fill the huge, new hole—even before it can respond to the increased spending demands of a growing elderly population. And the decision to cut taxes undermines the political formula required to induce almost any Democrat to consider supporting changes in entitlement programs: spending reductions balanced with tax hikes. “You have to have cooperation and trust across the aisle,” Bixby said. “That’s why you need a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases.”

Ryan is now bugling for House Republicans to charge the hill for entitlement cuts without Democratic cover. But with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already publicly skeptical, Bixby and others think it’s unlikely Ryan can spur a serious party-line drive to restructure Medicare, much less Social Security, the two biggest expenditures.