Presidential candidates are avoiding the hard choices about federal entitlements

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  1. KenH

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    May 18, 2002
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    Presidential candidates are avoiding the hard choices about federal entitlements

    Houston Chronicle
    January 5, 2008

    In the earmark war, we are all losers.

    Earmarks are the new political euphemism for pork, those pet projects with which lawmakers salt the federal budget.

    President Bush signed a $555 billion spending bill in the final days of last year that included about $10 billion for about 9,800 such projects.

    He made a point of decrying them in a "signing statement" and vowed to continue the fight when he submits his 2009 budget proposal to Congress next month. After presiding over seven years of spending increases, the president begins his final one by calling for fiscal discipline.

    The bill was a victory for Republicans because they managed to hold Congress to Bush's spending limits after Democrats tried to add another $22 billion in discretionary items.

    The victory, though, is a hollow one for the rest of us.

    "They're having this big fight, but it's not really where the problem is," said Bob Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, a bipartisan group that advocates a balanced federal budget.

    "I get concerned that people are getting so caught up in the earmark war that they're not looking at the big money," Bixby said.

    The big money — a spending increase of almost $100 billion this year alone — is in entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare. They're "mandatory" items, meaning Congress doesn't vote on them, it just writes a bigger check each year.

    "That happens on autopilot," Bixby said.

    Because we're running a deficit of $244 billion, much of the spending increases are likely to be financed. Interest on the federal debt is running about $250 billion, or 9 percent of the total budget.

    Solving the larger problem of entitlement spending, though, receives scant attention from the candidates vying to be Bush's successor.

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