Oedel: Entitlements Rorschach

October 13, 2013 

Entitlements will apparently soon become the prime subject of Washington politics and, one might hope, inter-party negotiation. Presently, the partisans paint entitlements in radically different ways.

“Supreme indifference” is what the New York Times editors saw in the House Republicans’ September vote to increase food stamps at a slower rate than proposed by Democrats, which the Times described as “slashing” the program. That was polite compared with the Times’ repeated rips at Republican resistance to Obamacare as callous, mean-spirited and racist.

Then Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma last week released a study finding huge increases in practically-lifelong awards of Social Security “disability” benefits nationwide. That’s despite the trend for disabilities to be accommodated in the workplace and remediated medically at unprecedented rates.

Federal disability payments were growing disproportionately even before 2008, but then ballooned. After recession led to more unemployed citizens exhausting unemployment benefits, Coburn suggests that that many of the unemployed, with help from fee-hungry lawyers, exaggerated ailments to get disability status as a refuge from unglamorous, albeit available, minimum-wage jobs.

Coburn’s long study of this issue has been pilloried as “heartless.” He still dryly noted last week on CBS that the law says that disability benefits should issue only if there’s no job that you can perform, even an unglamorous one. For many Democrats, Coburn’s pickiness about the legal meaning of “disability” emblemizes cold Republican stinginess.

The punching bag of Democratic derision is former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who improvidently suggested that he sees 47 percent of the nation’s citizens as slacker-takers. Romney implied that we’re close to hitting some tipping point at which a majority will simply vote themselves benefits to be paid by a shrinking productive minority.

In short, regarding entitlements, Republican partisans commonly paint Democrats as pandering to opportunistic parasites. By contrast, Democratic partisans commonly paint Republicans as fronting for elitist jerks.

Though there’s probably some truth in both characterizations, we’ve been mired in a prolonged, vicious and irresponsible name-calling contest that obstructs progress. Even assuming the Republicans are blamed for the shutdown and the Democrats “win” another round in this ongoing political maelstrom, stupid divisiveness needs to stop for the nation’s sake.

Political miscues, un-presidential finger-pointing and gerrymandered polarization aside, the entitlements debate is fierce in part mostly because of the stakes. Entitlements make up more than half of our annual federal budget of $3.5 trillion, and because about half (49 percent) of Americans receive entitlements.

So what to do?

My suggestion is for citizens to find and articulate two or three basic concerns about entitlements that are widely shared across the political spectrum. Then we might ask that the top leaders of both parties, including the Republican-embedded Tea Party (yes, even including the grandstanding Texas Sen. Ted Cruz), re-boot the political conversation to address them first.

Here are three possible questions of broadly shared concern about entitlements.

First, assuming the social safety net may be in danger of being shredded by inherently faulty or archaic design and mismanagement, and stretched by overuse, what can we do to repair it to make sure that it works properly when really needed?

Second, assuming that the safety net is being pressed into service more commonly today because of extrinsic economic problems, what can we do about job creation and savings rates to minimize resorting to the safety net?

Third, as to health care across the board, what can we do to reduce its economic drag on our economy (18 percent of GDP), and to improve health outcomes for all citizens -- the stated goals of Obamacare that will probably not be achieved under Obamacare’s constitutionally edgy, practically Byzantine model?

Call me a constitutional and political romantic, but I believe the basic framework of our system is solid. It can still work -- if we insist as a united citizenry that our elected representatives of all persuasions address what we the people generally see to be our collective problems.

On the other hand, if our politicians are further indulged in ignoring or failing to address the public’s basic business, then this experiment in democracy is in some trouble.

David Oedel teaches constitutional law at Mercer University.

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