It has never been a way to win friends and influence voters, but New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie isn’t shying away from reform of two “do-not-touch” entitlements—Medicare and Social Security. His goal is to cut the long-term debt since formally announcing his improbable campaign for the GOP presidential nomination last week.
While former Florida governor Jeb Bush and a few other presidential aspirants have voiced passing concern about the country’s burgeoning fiscal problems, Christie in late April outlined a full blown agenda for overhauling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid – including raising the retirement age and means testing benefits for seniors.
Social Security has long been considered the “Third Rail of Politics.” Touch it and you die because of the outrage from seniors and liberal advocacy groups for proposing changes that would reduce long-term benefits or cost of living adjustments.
During an interview today on “Fox News Sunday,” Christie doubled-down on his pledge to pursue major entitlement reform if he somehow overcomes other huge political liabilities to win the primary and general elections next year.
“I put that plan forward and I’m going to keep talking about it,” Christie said. They say don’t touch it. I’m going to hug it.”
“Seventy-one percent of federal spending in this year’s budget is on entitlements and debt service,” Christie said in the Fox News Sunday interview that was taped over the weekend. “If we don’t deal with this we can’t invest in national defense, we can’t invest in education, we can’t invest in infrastructure – the things that people want us to do in the government we’re not going to be able to afford to do. And those programs are going to go insolvent.”
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office said last month that if current law remains generally unchanged, the gap between overall spending and revenues -- would grow from less than 3 percent of GDP this year to more than 6 percent in 2040. At that point, 25 years from now, overall federal debt held by the public would exceed 100 percent of GDP.
During a speech April 14 in Manchester, N.H., Christie blasted Congress and the Obama administration for failing to act now in anticipation of the projected return of huge annual budget deficits of $1 trillion or more in the coming 25 years.
Christie said that Washington was unwilling to have an “honest conversation” about dealing with an aging population and mounting Social Security and health care costs. He offered a controversial laundry list of potential solutions, including raising the retirement age to 69 and boosting the early retirement age. The current retirement age is 67 for those born in 1960 or later.
The New Jersey governor also proposed means testing Social Security benefits to deny them to the wealthiest Americans, which would fundamentally change the mission and intent of Social Security. And he wants to overhaul Medicare and Medicaid to reduce long-term health care costs for seniors and low-income Americans. Overall, he predicted that his proposals would reduce the growth of entitlement spending by $1 trillion over the next decade.
“It’s not acceptable to me, nor is a massive tax increase on the American people to pay for it,” Christie said. “So we need to reform these programs. And we can do it – and do it in a way that’s not going to throw anybody off the cliff.”
Christie’s relatively late entry into the crowded field of 15 GOP presidential candidates is an uphill climb against Jeb Bush, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and other more establishment Republican candidates.
The boisterous, gruff, tough-talking Christie once seemed like an unstoppable freight train in the early going of the GOP presidential sweepstakes. He offered himself as a battle-tested state chief executive who solved serious budget and pension problems by garnering broad support across party lines to overwhelmingly win a second term in November 2013.
The combination of the “Bridgegate” scandal, a downgrade in his state’s credit rating and Christie’s poor standing among New Jersey voters have left the governor badly wounded and far back in the national polls. Unless he can find a way to overcome his political negatives, there’s a good chance he won’t make the cut for the first nationally televised presidential debate later this summer.
The latest Real Clear Politics aggregation of national polling averages, Bush and Walker are leading the GOP field with 16.3 percent and 10.5 percent of likely Republican voters, respectively, while Christie is far back with only 3.3 percent. Yet Christie is undaunted, and insisted today that the quality of his ideas and his strength of character will help him to surge ahead before too long.
In making the case for his budget management prowess, Christie asserted that New Jersey is spending $2.3 billion less this year than it spent in fiscal year 2008. He also boasted of pushing through major state pension reforms that will save an estimated $120 billion over the next thirty years.
The New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled June 9 that Christie had the legal right to slash $1.57 billion of state contributions to New Jersey’s troubled public employees’ pension system – a move that helped avert a fiscal crisis just before the start of a new fiscal year. The 5 to 2 ruling overturned a lower court decision and marked the culmination of intense fighting between Christie’s administration and state labor unions that have opposed the massive cuts.
“We have more to do,” Christie said today…. I’m just going to keep talking about it and working hard the way I am about entitlement reform which we need to do in our country as well.”
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: