Should GOP wait to tackle entitlement reform?

With the Republican takeover in the House, many fiscal conservatives and independents hoped to see serious budgetary reform as the focus of the 112ths session.  Did that include entitlement reform?  National Review’s Ramesh Ponnuru argues in the New York Times that the Republicans didn’t get a mandate for restructuring Social Security and Medicare, and that it should only be attempted if Barack Obama signs onto the project.  Otherwise, it will have to wait for a Republican President in 2013:

Would-be reformers should draw two lessons from this history. The first is that reform can’t be sprung on the electorate. Reagan hadn’t campaigned on cutting Social Security in 1980, nor did the Gingrich Republicans promise to reduce the growth of Medicare.

Today is no different: while some Republican candidates in the last election spoke forthrightly about the need to rein in these programs — notably Representative Ryan himself, but also new Senators Marco Rubio of Florida and Rand Paul of Kentucky — most of them didn’t.

As a result, if Republicans spend much of the next two years fighting over these programs, voters who depend on them are going to be unpleasantly surprised. Keep in mind that most voters oppose cuts to Social Security and Medicare, so they are likely to be very nervous about any proposals to restrain their growth, especially if opponents portray such cuts as excessive. Even worse, most members of Congress are not well informed about these programs, so they’ll have a hard time soothing public anxieties.

The second lesson is that presidential support for reform is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for success. As John Boehner, the new speaker of the House, said himself on election night, governing from Capitol Hill doesn’t work — the president has to set the agenda.

If Mr. Obama delivers a good-faith proposal for Social Security, for example in this month’s State of the Union address, then by all means Republicans should offer a serious counterproposal and, depending on their differences, negotiate. If he doesn’t, then Republicans should wait on a new president in 2013.

There are a couple of problems with this advice, however, chief among them Ponnuru’s optimism that Obama will lose his re-election bid in 2012.  If he doesn’t and still doesn’t want to talk about entitlement reform, what then?  In fact, his re-election could be seen as a mandate of approval for his entitlement expansion of ObamaCare, which will make pressing forward in 2013 even with a Congress fully controlled by the GOP somewhat awkward — and left in the same position as now, only with a bigger hole to fill.

Another problem is the looming debt ceiling question.  We are currently about $330 billion away from the ceiling now, which amounts to about three months of federal deficit spending at the current rate.  The flight towards the cap can be slowed a bit through the cuts Ponnuru suggests in non-entitlement spending, but not stopped altogether.  We need to strip about $1 trillion from the current budget on an annual basis to avoid breaching the debt limit.  Wage freezes for federal workers and eliminating funding for NPR and the National Endowment for the Arts won’t be enough.

For that matter, even entitlement reform won’t produce results fast enough to keep from hitting the cap, which is why Congress will almost certainly have to raise it.  But that move is opposed by 71% of the American public, which certainly looks like a mandate to make some drastic cuts to federal spending and structural changes to government.  Very clearly, the public has given the entire political class a mandate to end its borrowing spree and figure out a way to live within its means, and the moment to start doing that is now, not two years from now.

Politically, will such an effort succeed without having Obama on board?  Maybe not, but as the midterms and the year preceding it proved, the President doesn’t always set the agenda.  At the very least, an effort by Republicans in the House to seriously reform and reduce federal entitlement programs will demonstrate their credibility as fiscally responsible, and put more pressure on Obama to come up with his own plans to reform and reduce entitlements — just as the demand for welfare reform forced Bill Clinton to do the same.

Now is not the time for political caution.  Now is the time for bold action and setting the parameters of the debate.  Without that, Obama will easily get elected in 2012 and we’ll have to hear how the time is still not politically propitious to keep the US from falling over its debt cliff.

Update: In Gallup’s latest poll, it sure seems as though voters think Congress needs to tackle entitlement reform.  While Social Security and Medicare were not at the top of the list, 36% thought addressing Social Security was “extremely important” and 78% said it was either extremely or very important; the numbers on Medicare are 32% and 71%, respectively.