John E. Sununu

The significance of ‘significant’ cuts

By John E. Sununu
March 14, 2011

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ON A warm June night in 2003, with the clock approaching midnight, the Senate debated an amendment to increase Medicare premiums for retired couples earning more than $150,000. On a strong bipartisan vote, an effort to kill the proposal was soundly defeated, 59-38. Then a strange thing happened. Ted Kennedy immediately put the Senate in a quorum call — the political equivalent of calling time out — and engaged Don Nickles of Oklahoma in a prolonged, professional, shouting match.

Kennedy explained to the amendment’s sponsor in no uncertain terms that mean-testing would not be part of the bill that left the Senate floor. With the July Fourth holiday looming, he threatened to offer an endless stream of amendments that would keep us voting all weekend. Judging by the color of his face, he meant it.

After a full half-hour back and forth, Nickles relented. Having battled with his friend Kennedy dozens of times through the years, he knew it was better to leave this fight for another day. The Senate returned to debate. The amendment was called up and defeated by voice-vote despite the fact that it enjoyed overwhelming support. It was an extraordinary moment displaying both Kennedy’s brilliant sense of legislative timing, and Nickles’s willingness to yield in the spirit of accommodation.

Kennedy succeeded on the floor that night, but the bipartisan vote marked a dramatic change in the debate over entitlements. For years, liberals believed that means-testing was a line that would never be crossed, and Kennedy held fast to the idea that it was unacceptable under any circumstance. Ultimately, the provision he fought against that night would make it back into the final Medicare bill. Slowly but surely, the financial burden of these programs was causing the old ideological unity to unravel.Today, public opinion seems to have caught up to the bipartisan sentiment of that vote eight years ago, at least according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll. Although the Journal’s headline declared that voters opposed “significant’’ cuts to entitlements, the truth was somewhat more complex. Not surprisingly, people agree that undefined “cuts’’ to Medicare and Social Security are “unacceptable.’’ But specific, meaningful changes to these programs are broadly supported — so much for truth in labeling.

In fact, reducing Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthier retirees was supported by 62 percent of those asked. Raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 was backed by a 56-42 margin. Taken together, these two adjustments, supported by the president’s deficit reduction commission, would cover roughly 60 percent of the long-term shortfall in Social Security.

Reporters (and op-ed writers) do not choose the headline that runs above their work. As a result, it’s not uncommon for readers to come away a bit mystified when the marquee and product do not quite match. The Journal article was a case in point. Most voters do not consider these changes to be “significant’’ cuts because the ideas strike them as common sense: the wealthy should pay a larger share of their Medicare costs; retirement age should reflect long-term changes in life expectancy. The challenge is to read far enough into a story to find the truth. Significance is in the eye of the beholder.

And what constitutes “significant’’ in the debate over this year’s discretionary spending levels? Extending the current spending resolution through the end of the fiscal year would cost $1.08 trillion. House Republicans passed a bill that would reduce this level by about $57 billion, while the president proposed $6 billion in cuts. The White House argues that its recommended reductions — about one-half of 1 percent — are “significant.’’ Republicans disagree.

Strip away the rhetoric, and the difference between the two is about 5 percent of federal discretionary spending. Controlling a budget is never easy, but families and businesses rein in their spending by 4 or 5 percent all the time. More important, given that the United States just posted the largest monthly budget deficit in world history — $223 billion — one might hope we could do better than a half-percent reduction.

In fact, the NBC/WSJ poll showed that majorities support budget cuts to state government assistance, the Environmental Protection Agency, and transportation projects as well. Interestingly, after all the poll questions about program cuts had been asked, preference for “cutting important programs’’ actually increased from 35 to 37 percent, while support for raising taxes declined from 33 to 29 percent.

Polls shouldn’t determine budget policy; they simply show the degree to which the public recognizes that tough choices are at hand. Today’s fiscal crisis is bigger than any one government program, but if budget negotiators were to embrace public sentiment on retirement age and means-testing and find 3 or 4 percent in discretionary savings this year, they just might be on to something “significant.’’ What would the headline writers at the Journal say then?

■ Correction: Last week’s column should have credited Gallup as the conductors of a poll identifying Ronald Reagan as the most respected president of the 20th century.

John E. Sununu, a regular Globe contributor, is a former US senator from New Hampshire.