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