Guest View: Parties' role reversal complicates spending debates
WASHINGTON — Congress has become the butt of late-night comedians for waiting until the last minute to do any work, yet its procrastination involves something more than fecklessness: The issue over which it keeps stumbling not only separates its two parties into warring camps, but divides them internally.
At its core, the debate over the size of government and how to pay for it pits the interests of the huge baby boom generation, now mostly in their 50s and 60s, against the needs of the even larger cohort in their teens and 20s. With limited government money to spend, how much should go to paying medical bills for retirees versus subsidizing college loans, job training and health care for young families with children?
As they grapple with that, the party of small government increasingly relies on the votes of people dependent on entitlement spending. And the party that created the massive government programs for retirees has more and more become the political home of the young.
The part of the debate that ended Tuesday night mostly involved how limited the government's resources would be. Congress agreed to add about $620 billion to federal revenue over the next decade. But the vote locked in place the Bush-era tax cuts for everyone with incomes below $400,000 a year, a decision that denied the Treasury about $4 trillion over the same period.
That vote did not end the tax debate, but it did settle the biggest part of it. White House officials say that this spring, when the next budget deadline arrives, President Barack Obama will seek several hundred billion dollars more during the next 10 years. But even if he prevails over Republican opposition, the increment would be relatively small.
Increasingly, therefore, the coming fights over the budget will focus on the topic that both sides have shied away from: spending on retirees.
Both parties prefer to focus voters' attention elsewhere. Democrats like to blame the rise in the national debt on the George W. Bush-era tax cuts — 98 percent of which Congress just voted to renew — and the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Republicans like to point to Obama's economic stimulus efforts.
Each of those policies has contributed to the debt, but only to a limited degree. The real driver behind the government's long-term debt problem comes from the huge number of people entering retirement.
Over the last 40 years, the federal government has spent, on average, about 18.5 percent of the US gross domestic product — the overall output of the economy. At the current rate of increase, Social Security and Medicare alone would equal 16 percent of the economy by the time the number of retirees stops growing, about 25 years from now, the Congressional Budget Office projects. Most of the increase would come from the cost of health care.
The coy comments from both sides underscored the conflicts between their positions and their most potent supporters.
Democrats have long championed the government's social safety net. Medicare, passed under Lyndon B. Johnson, and Social Security, under Franklin D. Roosevelt, stand as two of the party's proudest policy achievements.
Yet Democrats' strongest support now comes from younger voters.