A way forward on the federal budget

By Joe Perry, Special to the BDN
Posted March 24, 2013, at 9:51 a.m.

Today, finding consensus in Congress can be contentious and cumbersome, but it’s possible. Both sides have common interests, anxious constituents and can find agreement. During the 14 years I spent in the Maine Legislature, and especially the six years as Senate chairman of the Taxation Committee, we did this many times.

While everyone in Washington can agree we need to address our budget, the economy and the deficit, inaction makes these challenging problems harder to resolve. Self-imposed fiscal cliffs and deadlines will never force a solution; they tend to make unfair cuts and divide us.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., is trying to address the issue of entitlements by raising the retirement age for anyone 55 or younger. He calls his plan a “responsible and balanced budget.” Unfortunately, it is neither. This change, 10 years out, is too little, too late. Our budgetary challenges are far too daunting to ignore revenue, and it is dishonest to count unrealistic savings.

For example, proposing to repeal Obamacare and then counting those savings wastes time, misleads the public and does not balance the budget. No solution is going to be easy, and they all risk being unpopular with voters. However, there is still a job to be done, and people expect a solution.

Here is a solution for the president and every member of Congress to consider.

Starting three years out, increase the retirement age for Social Security and Medicare by one month per year, for the next 60 years. For example, someone who is 60 will have a Medicare eligibility at the age of 65 and two months. Under this plan a 55 year old would retire at age 65 and seven months; under Ryan’s plan it would be 66. However, in the 10 years between now and when Ryan’s change would kick in, we would have already shaved billions of dollars off our deficit. And for 7 year olds, they should know their new retirement age would be 70.

This long-term solution, made up of very gentle increments, is far better than anything that is on the table now. Current budget talks include reducing cost of living increases for current retirees. This can have a devastating effect over time for our seniors who are living on the edge — and sucks much-needed cash out of our anemic economy.

Democratic support of this new initiative would go light years beyond anything the Republicans could imagine. So they will need to accept that this sweeping change will not be paired up with lower taxes and less regulation. In fact, it’s time to admit that Obamacare and Medicaid will likely become more important pieces of the health-care puzzle as older Americans will be purchasing private insurance longer. Republicans should forget repeal, block grants or vouchers and work toward strengthening Obamacare and Medicaid in a sensible way.

Now let’s think about a balanced budget. Continued austerity keeps us mired in an economy near recession, with high unemployment and a struggling middle class. It also does little to balance our budget or inspire corporations to invest any of the mountains of cash they’re sitting on by hiring new workers or creating new production. Robust growth is the fastest way to a balanced budget.

We need to pay more of our budget by raising revenue through the closing of loopholes rather than borrowing, as part of a serious and realistic balanced budget plan. This, coupled with the long-term entitlement solution, will inspire the confidence of the American people and businesses to turn our economy completely around.

This balanced approach calls for Democrats to admit our entitlement system — originally designed with a huge workforce funding a relatively small retired population — needs to be reformed. With longer life expectancies, expensive medical advancements and a smaller workforce-to-retiree ratio, this is becoming increasingly unsustainable. At the same time, Republicans have to accept that a responsible government is essential to society, has an enormous influence on our economy — and needs to be funded.

We can no longer afford to put government on our credit card, and closing a few loopholes for the very rich is a reasonable exchange for sweeping entitlement reform.

Joe Perry, a Democrat, served in the Maine House and Senate from 1996 to 2010 on several committees, including Banking and Insurance, Transportation, Government Oversight and as Senate chairman of the Taxation committee. He lives in Bangor and owns and operates Garland Street Market.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/03/24/opinion/contributors/a-way-forward-on-the-federal-budget/ printed on October 21, 2014