Kevin D. Williamson:
Barack Obama is working overtime to secure his legacy — a legacy of debt. In his new budget proposal, the president is reneging on an earlier offer to slightly change the formula under which Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) are made, which would have shaved around a quarter-trillion dollars or so off the mounting national debt and added a few tens of billions in new spending to boot.
Which is to say, President Obama is working to secure a gigantic tax increase on your children.
Under current practice, Social Security benefits are raised in proportion to the Consumer Price Index; under the “chained CPI” model, they would still rise, albeit at a slower rate, one that arguably more accurately represents actual changes in the cost of living. (Chained CPI assumes some substitution on the part of consumers as prices change — e.g., if orange juice prices rise, people switch to grapefruit juice.) Even the AARP, which opposes COLA reform as doggedly as it opposes most sensible fiscal reforms, calculates that the change would amount to about $3 on every $1,000 in benefits Social Security recipients enjoy — a trivial amount of money for the individual but one that adds up overall: Changing to chained CPI would knock some $230 billion, possibly more, off the debt the country is expected to accrue in coming years.
Reverting to his habitual class-warfare style, the president now says that it would be unfair to move forward with a proposal that he endorsed just last year — unless he secures another nice fat tax increase to go with it.
The change may still happen. What the president is doing here is simply working to preemptively strengthen his bargaining hand as he goes into budget negotiations with Congress, particularly with the Republican-controlled House. He is taking COLA reform off the table for the moment in order to have the opportunity to put it back on in the future in exchange for one of his own political priorities.
Given the state of the national balance sheet, this is a cynical and irresponsible maneuver. There are very few meaningful long-term debt-reduction proposals that can wrench a compromise from both parties in Congress and the White House. COLA reform would not cut one measly dollar from anybody’s Social Security check but only reduce the rate at which those checks grow in the future. President Obama has been known to accuse his opponents in the legislative branch of operating a “Do Nothing” Congress, but here he is personally ensuring that something that needs doing is going to be a lot more difficult to do.