Editorial | Woe is Medicare, Social Security

Editorial | Woe is Medicare, Social Security

How many times have our elected officials been warned that Medicare and Social Security face deep financial troubles?

In the midst of all the news about President Donald Trump's meeting with the leader of North Korea and special counsel Robert Mueller's impeachment investigation, readers may have missed the recent news about the state of Social Security and Medicare.

Either that or they just don't want to think about it.

But the trustees of the programs have disclosed some seriously bad news that will have an impact on all Americans regardless of age.

Social Security is projected to be insolvent by 2034, while Medicare will go belly up much sooner — 2026.

The problem is relatively simple to explain — both programs are spending far more money than they are taking in through payroll taxes they levy on employers and employees. Since the trust funds they oversee really aren't trust funds in a conventional sense, Social Security and Medicare have no choice but to make up for their shortfalls by tapping the federal government's general revenue fund by an estimated $416 billion this year.

That, of course, means adding $416 billion to whatever billion-dollar deficit the federal government already is running. Suffice it to say, this is a disaster that will only grow worse in the absence of hard bipartisan work by Democrats and Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration.

Given the split between Trump and congressional Democrats, bipartisanship is hard to find these days in Washington. But it's been in short supply for years when it comes to the problem-laden Social Security and Medicare programs.

Each party has crept up to the brink of serious discussion and agreement on actions to take. But whatever plans they cooked up were then undermined by each party's fear that the other would try to gain a political advantage resulting from the hard — meaning unpopular — decisions that will have to be made.

Speaking of American foreign policy, the president and members of Congress used to abide by the bromide that "politics stops at the water's edge."

Given the stakes involved, that same rule should apply to these two immensely important social welfare programs. To the extent it doesn't, serious problems will result because the longer our elected officials wait to take action, the more difficult these problems will be to fix.

"What people have to worry about is that in a democracy, we govern either by leadership or by crisis," said former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta. "What you are looking at right now is a situation where crisis is going to be driving decisions."

Given the 2026 and 2034 dates for financial collapse, it will be easy for those in charge to continue to put off issues they don't have the stomach to face. But as these two programs are forced to rely on the federal government's general revenues — actually, borrowing by the federal government — they're driving up a national debt that already is too high.

If circumstances are not addressed, interest on that debt will be consuming far too much of the federal budget.

While the problem is immense, the general solution is relatively simple — both programs need increased revenue and benefit cuts. The public will resent both.

But what other choice is there other than continuing to hope in vain that these problems will disappear on their own. That, of course, is not going to happen.

So it's better to get on with the tough fixes while there's still time.

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