Eye on entitlements


WHILE President-elect Barack Obama wants urgent action on today's economic crisis, it's good to know he is not losing sight of tomorrow's. That would be the pending fiscal difficulties of Medicare and Social Security.

For decades, presidents and congressional leaders have promised to take bipartisan steps to head off the funding crisis that is coming for the health-care program and the income safety net of elderly Americans. Once the full force of baby boomer retirements hit in the next 20 years, the popular twin entitlements will have a hard time sustaining themselves.

Last year's annual Social Security and Medicare Trustees' Reports said the cost of the two programs will double from about 7 percent of the economy to 14 percent by 2040.

The nonpartisan Concord Coalition, which advocates responsible fiscal policy, said at the time that if the government spent 14 percent of current GDP on Medicare and Social Security they would absorb 80 percent of all revenues.

Fortunately, Mr. Obama said last week that overhauling the entitlements would be "a central part" of his efforts to contain federal spending. While he offered no prescription, he said he would have more to say when he releases his budget next month.

President George W. Bush and his allies sought to privatize Social Security, a plan that never caught fire with the public. Other ideas include lifting the ceiling on the Social Security payroll tax so the wealthy will pay more and limiting in some ways who may collect benefits.

Any solution is guaranteed to be controversial, but that shouldn't stop Republicans and Democrats from taking hold of the issue. Too many people count on these programs every day.

The next president says this time Washington will deal with it, and Americans must hold him to it.