Talking entitlements

TALKING ENTITLEMENTS…. As the budget fight gets underway in earnest, it’s worth appreciating how small the battleground is. The budget is rather enormous, but at this point, policymakers are largely ignoring entitlements, defense, and interest on the debt — which combined represent roughly three-fourths of the entire budget.

Entitlements, at this point, could be part of the debate, but neither the White House nor congressional Republicans are eager to put forward any ideas, knowing the other would exploit the efforts politically.

Some administration advisers wanted [President Obama] to propose specific changes to fix Social Security, which has accumulated surpluses to date but before long will begin paying out more than it takes in from payroll taxes.

But, Democrats say, Mr. Obama and his political team figured that Republicans are unwilling to talk compromise this soon after their return to power in the House and that a president facing re-election next year would be unwise to risk proposing bold but controversial ideas, like small reductions in cost-of-living adjustments for future Social Security beneficiaries, only to be rebuffed.

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) insisted this isn’t good enough, and it’s incumbent on responsible leaders to be bold in offering controversial entitlement-reform plans.

Asked yesterday, however, whether he and his caucus would do just that, Ryan responded, “I wish I could tell you the answer to that.”

Indeed, it was one of the more striking aspects of the Republican message yesterday. GOP officials were outraged that the White House didn’t touch entitlements in its budget plan, but seemed lost and confused when asked whether Republicans would touch entitlements in their budget plan.

Ryan, for example, said he didn’t know what his party would do, and didn’t know when he might figure it out. At nearly the exact same time, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said Republicans would tackle entitlements, but he wouldn’t say how or when.

With the right hand unaware of what the other right hand is doing, is it any wonder the White House is reluctant to start throwing out ideas on a sensitive area administration officials don’t really want to pursue anyway?

In the bigger picture, we do have a sense of what Republicans are thinking. They’re being clumsy about it, but as Brian Beutler noted this morning, “Republicans seem to be coalescing around the same objective: to put Social Security and maybe even Medicare on the chopping block. ”

The questions, then, are what Republicans will propose, when they’ll propose it, and how Democrats will respond. Under the circumstances, if GOP leaders are waiting for the White House to take the first move and stick the president’s neck out, they’ll be waiting a long time.

If Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, they’re going to have to say so.