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Entitlements are tough political targets

By Matt Pommer

Ron Johnson, the Oshkosh businessman and likely Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate seat, says he is running to end Americas “culture of entitlement.”

Johnson will have to spell out what entitlements he would like to attack. The biggest now operating in American government are veterans’ benefits, Medicare and Social Security. Few people collecting those entitlements want to reduce their benefits.

Many want more.

Johnson has been critical of the new health care law, but it contains Medicare benefits such as free preventive services and a free annual exam. The new law would extend help to the 77 percent of people not in the Medicare Advantage program.

More than 80,000 Medicare beneficiaries are getting $250 checks to help them pay for their drug benefits, a part of the new law.

These are new entitlements for the elderly. Would Republicans repeal the entire new health care act, including the Medicare improvements? Johnson will be asked that question on the campaign trail, especially since it is his key issue.

The health care act won’t be repealed before 2013 even if Republicans such as Johnson take control of the Congress. There will be 42 carry-over Democratic senators in the next U.S. Senate That means Republicans won’t be able to override an Obama veto of any repeal even if the GOP wins every Senate election in November.

Cutting veterans benefits likely would be denounced as unpatriotic. You can hear the howl from veterans’ organizations if you even mention scaling back on benefits.

Social Security often has been described as the “third rail” of politics, meaning candidates might have their political lives snuffed out if they get too anxious to change Social Security. President George Bush asked a Republican-controlled Congress to partially privatize Social Security for younger Americans. The idea was dead on arrival in the U.S. Capitol.

Social Security has long-range problems, largely because people are living longer. Just read the obituaries in your newspaper. They mention many people who have lived into their 80s and some into their 90s.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, has folded the Bush concept into his ideas for Social Security and suggests the age for full Social Security benefits be increased gradually to age 70 to save money. Few other Republicans have rushed to rally behind Ryan’s program.

It’s easier to just announce they would oppose any increase in the payroll taxes. Historians will note that President Ronald Reagan approved higher Social Security payroll taxes while he was in office. It was part of a deal that delayed full benefits until later ages.

Will Johnson back a Ryan-Bush approach to Social Security? That would be a big time entitlement cure for America.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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