LOPING OUT OF THE SENATE Dining Room after a low-cal lunch of a vegetarian sandwich one day, Sen. John C. Danforth, R-Mo., was stopped dead in his tracks by an elderly man in a wheelchair who grabbed the senator's coat sleeve.
"Now, don't you go cutting my Social Security!" the man fiercely chided the senator. "There're other things you can cut!"
Danforth disengaged himself with polite, hearty murmurings, loped on down the corridor and turned to his lunch companion. "See," said the senator, through gritted teeth. "That's exactly the problem - everybody says `Don't cut MY program. Don't cut me. Cut the other guy's program.' "
Since that day nearly two years ago, Danforth has turned his private mutterings into a frequent public theme. He is calling for restraints on the so-called "entitlement" programs, for political courage to push the restraints through Congress, and - occasionally - for less of what he nearly terms greed from some of the millions of recipients of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and federal retirement programs.
Last month, President Bill Clinton handed Danforth another soapbox. The president appointed Danforth and Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., to head a special commission to look at the startling growth in tax spending on entitlement programs. Now, Danforth says he wouldn't take a bet on whether restraints will come out of the commission and get through Congress. But, at least, he says, the commission holds a "hope."
"The hangup has been politics rather than policy," Danforth said in an interview last week. "The hope is to test the possibility of a bipartisan consensus" on dealing with entitlements.
The politics and the policy of entitlement programs are an explosive mixture. And the problem is money. Some statistics:
More than half of the $1.4 trillion the government spends yearly goes to entitlement programs. That's money that Congress is obliged to budget each year, leaving its "discretionary" spending and potential cuts to areas such as defense and roads and bridges.
Entitlement programs' spending and share of public budgets have been growing fast. Medicare and Medicaid, the tax-supported health insurance programs for the elderly and the poor, once accounted for 13 percent of the entitlement spending. Now they are 30 percent.
The problem is also people.
"Behind every one of these entitlements, there is a person," Clinton told the audience at what was billed as summit meeting on entitlements at Bryn Mawr College last week. Social Security, he reminded, has brought many elderly out of poverty. And both Medicaid and Medicare mean medical care for old people and children who might not otherwise get it. He has called for compassion in cuts, and pitched his health care reform plan as a way to help control spending on health care.
And some of those people are politically powerful about the policies. The elderly, for example, are known to be dedicated voters and have a well-organized lobby.
Danforth acknowledges some genuine need for public support to the poor. But, he said, "What makes the entitlements popular is that they extend well beyond the needy." Medicare covers health costs for everyone 65 and older, regardless of income. Some don't need it, Danforth says. "Let's take an example of a retired executive who lives in a resort community in Florida and gets into his Mercedes and drives to the most expensive doctor in town and Medicare pays for it."
What Danforth favors is an an income test for Medicare eligibility, something that Medicare supporters have traditionally opposed. …