Too Sacred to Repeal?

In the nation’s capital today, there is no easier task than balancing the federal budget.

If resolving our so-called debt crisis is what we really wanted to do, there is no mystery to it whatever.

All you’d have to do is get rid of Social Security and Medicare.

By no means do I know the first thing about economics.  Nor am I so stupid or naïve to think (as an alarming number of my fellow Americans do) that because I can balance my own checkbook, I am therefore qualified to balance the country’s.

But I am capable of glancing at the 2012 federal budget and observing that the U.S. ran a deficit of $1.3 trillion last year and expended $1.3 trillion on Social Security and Medicare.

Accordingly, the most dramatic yet straightforward means of erasing the deficit (if not the debt) is staring us squarely in the face.  I don’t know a lot, but I am fairly confident about what happens when you subtract $1.3 trillion from itself.

Of course, the United States is not about to abolish two of its signature grand entitlement programs, enacted, respectively, as part of the New Deal and the Great Society.  Heck, it requires a Herculean effort to raise the official retirement age by six months.

And why is this the case, ladies and gentlemen?  Why is it a vain hope that we will ever balance our budget by the most surefire means available to us?

In the specific case of entitlements for old folks, the usual assumption is that no politician dares to say a negative word because it would annoy seniors, the most reliable voting bloc in America.

However, the deeper impetus for broad structural change in our system is much more interesting.  It’s the simple fact that massive government programs such as Medicare have existed long enough that we have come to accept them as an inevitable piece of American life.  Once something so intricate has been done, it becomes almost impossible to be undone.

I make this observation in the aftermath of a recent tizzy surrounding Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and comments he made about the Voting Rights Act of 1965, whose partial repeal is currently under consideration.

Among Scalia’s more incendiary assertions involved his employment of the term “racial entitlement.”  “Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements,” Scalia intoned, “it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.”

“I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any senator to vote against continuation of this act,” he continued.  “Even the name of it is wonderful:  The Voting Rights Act.  Who is going to vote against that in the future?”

For these and other comments, Scalia has been lacerated from one end of the culture to the other.  Indeed, the objections have been so high-pitched, the ad hominem so fierce, it has left us very little time and space to consider whether Scalia might be correct after all.

For starters, he is undoubtedly on to something on the matter of legislators being scared of voting against a bill with an appealing name.  Indeed, I would hazard to guess the matter was more or less settled with the USA PATRIOT Act in October 2001—voted for by nearly all, actually read by almost none.

As for the “racial entitlement” charge:  Remove the word “racial” from the above quotation and you are left with an utterly uncontroversial statement of fact, and the point with which I began.

The term I would evoke here is stare decisis.  Latin for “let the decision stand,” it is the judicial principle of respecting precedent and recognizing that once the Court has pronounced judgment on a particular issue, the debate on that issue is effectively over forever.

Certainly we have witnessed rather dramatic exceptions to this philosophy in the last two and a half centuries.  The principle of holding human beings as property was a precedent worth not respecting, for instance, as were the high court’s past decisions on segregation, sodomy and women’s rights.

Reverting back from the judiciary to the legislature, the question we might ask, in this epoch of businesses that are “too big to fail,” is whether it is wise to assume that certain legislation is too sacred to repeal.

The American republic existed for nearly two centuries without Medicare, yet we now regard it as an indispensable birthright, completely untouchable in all considerations of getting the federal budget under control.

Sooner or later, we will need to reckon with the fact that, if we are serious in our budget talks about nothing being “off the table,” we would do well to negotiate around a less porous table.

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