McCain: I'll balance the budget by cleaning up entitlement programs

John McCain will send a message to fiscal conservatives this week: he’ll take on entitlement programs in his first term.  Pledging to balance the budget in four years, McCain will cut waste and begin overhauling Social Security and Medicare, a bold vision that presents an opportunity and a risk for the Republican.  George Bush saw his second term run aground on the shoals of Social Security reform:

McCain is making the pledge at the beginning of a week when both presidential candidates plan to devote their events to the economy, the top issue in poll after poll as voters struggle to keep their jobs and fill their gas tanks. …

McCain’s emphasis on balancing the budget is likely to excite conservatives, who have remained skeptical of his candidacy, and provoke derision from Democrats, who will argue that it’s a warmed-over version of proposals that President Bush failed to enact.

The Democrats shrug off McCain’s pledge as unrealistic.  He has a $400 billion gap to close, as the CBO predicts that kind of deficit in 2013 under current budget plans.  Can McCain possibly do that with a combination of entitlement reforms and surgical excision of waste?  McCain believes he can, and points to the essential problem in a speech he will deliver this morning:

This Congress and this Administration have failed to meet their responsibilities to manage the government.  Government has grown by 60 percent in the last eight years.  That is simply inexcusable.  When I’m president, I will order a stem to stern review of government, modernize how it does business and save billions of dollars.  I will veto every single bill with wasteful spending.  We aren’t going to continue mortgaging this country’s future for things Americans don’t want or need.

My opponent has a very different record on this issue.   He has sought millions upon millions of dollars in earmarks since his election to the Senate.  In 2007 alone, Senator Obama requested nearly $100 million for earmark projects.  I have never asked for a single earmark in my entire career.  He supported the $300 billion pork laden agricultural subsidy bill.  I opposed it.  He voted for an energy bill stuffed with give-aways to oil companies at a time of record profits.  I voted against it.

We grew spending by over 35% from 2000, when we had a $2.0 trillion budget.  Some of that went to the war effort, but plenty of it came in other discretionary spending.  And, as McCain tells Politico, the real spending problem isn’t in discretionary programs but in entitlements.  The explosion of spending threatens to overwhelm the federal budget over the next few decades, but already accounts for 58% of federal spending.

In real terms, we have increased entitlement spending by 759% over the last 43 years.  In 2007 dollars, we spent $582 billion in 1965, and in 2007 that has transformed into a $2.5 trillion boondoggle.  What’s worse, the rate of increase has speeded up.  We have added more than a half-trillion dollars over the last five years.  It took 43 years to add a half-trillion 2007 dollars to discretionary spending.

McCain at least puts entitlements on the table as a problem in the bloated federal budget.  Barack Obama has only mentioned entitlements in terms of expanding them, adding new taxes as a way to redistribute capital through the federal government.  A real agent of change would offer solutions rather than the hair of the dog.