Allen: Trump should break campaign promise on entitlements

Cynthia M. Allen

In his first 50 days in office, President Donald Trump has been working to make good on many of his campaign promises.

Whether slashing government regulations or cracking down on illegal immigration, Trump appears to be ticking through a very aggressive action list with the ruthless efficiency of, well, a slightly mad businessman.

One promise Trump made before his election was less proactive. He vowed to do basically nothing when it comes to America’s costly and ill-fated entitlement programs.

Trump reiterated his pledge to make “no changes” to Social Security and Medicare when he spoke last month to a joint session of Congress.

The promise of inaction may be little else than an attempt to appease his base, but if fulfilled, it could be one of the most costly “actions” of Trump’s presidency.

It is a promise he should not keep.

To be fair, during the 2016 presidential campaign, both Trump and Secretary Hillary Clinton opposed making significant changes to Social Security and Medicare.

Indeed, entitlement reform is a sticky issue for politicians.

The programs have become lifelines for millions of Americans who depend on them for income and care for far longer than policymakers ever anticipated.

They are also the two largest mandatory government expenditures, sucking up some 41 percent of federal outlays in 2015.

That number is projected to grow by leaps and bounds in the coming decades.

According to the annual Social Security Trustees report, the program’s trust funds will be depleted by 2034, when “continuing tax income would be sufficient to pay 79 percent of scheduled benefits.” By 2090, the program will be able to pay only 74 percent of scheduled benefits.

The Congressional Budget Office agrees, estimating that payroll taxes would need to be “raised immediately and permanently” by almost 5 percent or that scheduled benefits be reduced by a similar amount in order to “pay the benefits prescribed by current law and maintain the necessary trust fund balances through 2090.”

Medicare faces similar shortfalls.

Thanks to the ever-rising cost of health care and the massive increase in eligible recipients, its Hospital Insurance Trust fund will be bankrupt even sooner, in 2028.

And nothing exacerbates our nation’s dim financial outlook quite like entitlement spending.

At its current rate of payout, Social Security will accumulate more than $1 trillion in deficits in the next decade.

None of this information is new.

But we have a new president, and for at least the next year and a half he will have a Republican Congress, whose leadership (not so very long ago) seemed willing to die on the hill of enacting entitlement reform.

Some congressional Republicans have expressed optimism the president will be amenable to reforms in the coming years.

“My hope is, that at some point, that he will,” Texas Sen. John Cornyn told RealClearPolitics.

House Speaker Paul Ryan recently told NBC’s “Today” show that he believes Trump’s promise to make no programmatic changes applies to benefits for current and near-term recipients, but that does not preclude reforms for future generations.

And there are individuals in the president’s Cabinet who seem willing to take the case directly to Trump.

During his confirmation hearing, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, conceded that if left untouched Medicare and Social Security will both run short of funds in the coming decades.

Since his confirmation, Mulvaney said he “already started to socialize the discussion around … the West Wing about how important the mandatory spending is to the drivers of our debt,” and will turn his attention to preparing reform proposals in the coming months.

Mulvaney seems to think Trump can uphold his pledge to current entitlement beneficiaries while saving the programs for the future.

That remains to be seen.

One thing is for sure: If Trump is really interested in making America “great again,” he has to tackle entitlements — and that may mean breaking a promise.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Send email to cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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