The budget battle

Approximately 650,000 Arkansans received Social Security benefits in one form or another. A majority of recipients, or about 370,000 men and women, draw retirement checks. Women live longer than men on average and that is borne out in the latest available numbers from Washington: of beneficiaries over age 65 women number 226,000, 174,000 are men. Disability payments go to 138,000 Arkansans and to 2,600 spouses. Another 76,000 recipients are surviving spouses and dependent children.

More than 550,000 Arkansans look to Medicare for their medical needs.

The number of our fellow citizens who rely on these two programs is growing, daily.

Many if not most of them are scared out of their minds by what is going on in Washington. Will their benefits be curtailed? Will they abruptly be subjected to income considerations — means testing?

No. There is no possibility, none, that elected officials would consider altering the terms of the Social Security and Medicare programs for those already receiving benefits. They may be obstreperous, they may be partisan, they may be ideological — but they are not stupid. Well, put it this way: they’re not [begin ital] that [end ital] stupid. Seniors vote. They vote regularly. They go the polls on walkers and in wheelchairs and, if that fails, they demand, receive and employ absentee ballots.

So the Obama administration acknowledges that some “modest” reform of entitlement programs is in order — but warns that what congressional Republicans have in mind is such a major restructuring of Medicare and Social Security that retirees, and the Baby Boomers on the cusp of retirement, will be left high and dry in their twilight years.

The response of the loyal opposition is to warn that doing nothing is to watch the mathematics of each of the two programs, but especially Medicare, devour each, and sooner rather than later.

Thus are the two sides, and there is very little common ground between them, locked in the latest Washington fiscal folly, with deadlines — three of them — looming.

Failing a deficit reduction agreement by March 1, a sequester of $1.2 trillion in discretionary federal spending will begin (though not as quickly as the Obama team maintains). Three weeks later the continuing resolution (effectively, the budget under which the government is now operating) will expire; it must either be replaced with a new one or Washington must stop spending. And just around the corner is another contest over the debt ceiling.

The Democrats propose increased revenues from closing loopholes (tax increases, if you enjoy such a loophole) and reduced Pentagon spending. (There is some division among their ranks; urban Democrats would like the whittle the next farm bill while their ag-dependent colleagues pledge resistance).

To Republicans the Defense Department’s budget is off-limits, period. Domestic discretionary spending is the key, not, not, not additional taxes, especially not, not, not when 2013 began with higher rates on the highest brackets.

Entitlement programs aren’t involved. Not now. Inevitably they will be, though again it is the longer arc of Social Security and Medicare that must be addressed, as both sides in the budget battle concede, some publicly and others in whispers.

The Senate’s Republican leader, Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, vowed early in the week to let the sequester begin rather than make further concessions to the White House. Indeed, McConnell seemed almost to relish the prospect of the budget broad axe; he stands for re-election next year, and like many in his party he fears a wounding, perhaps fatal primary challenge from the right.

Democrats, meantime, appear equally willing to run the risk of public outrage, mainly because the voting public (and seniors, especially) has regarded the other party as primarily responsible for the discomfit of budget stalemates. Mr. Obama is, of course, the face of the Democrats, and his post-election popularity is still fairly high. In contrast, the latest Gallup Poll, released Monday, shows public approval of Congress “holding steady” at all of 15 percent.

The following day Messrs. Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, co-chairs of the bi-partisan deficit reduction commission chartered by Mr. Obama, with their latest proposals for getting the job done on an equal-pain basis. Except the new plan calls for far more in spending cuts than new taxes — about a three bucks in cuts for every additional dollar in revenue. It immediately is declared a non-starter by the political class.

I mentioned all this in a conversation at mid-week with Sen. John Boozman, Republican of Arkansas. The only certainty amid the chaos of Washington non-budgeting, of Capitol dodging and weaving on deficit and debt, was that (a) will continue for the near term, and (b) that current and imminent beneficiaries of Medicare and Social Security need not worry.

Which means something akin to 40 percent of us have nothing to fear. That leaves 60 percent.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.