By Kevin Bogardus - 06/19/13 05:25 PM EDT
The Chamber of Commerce is embarking on a national campaign to bring attention to the nation’s entitlement crisis.
Bruce Josten, the chief lobbyist for the lobby group, on Wednesday asked business leaders to join him in spreading the message that Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are driving the United States to financial ruin.
“We need to fix these programs because if we don’t, they will consume every dollar the government collects,” Josten said.
In an unusual move, the Chamber provided press access to Josten’s speech, which he delivered at a breakfast for the group’s board of directors. The assembled board members sat in rapt attention as Josten laid out when he called the “10 truths” about entitlements.
Josten detailed how the entitlement programs are driving up deficits and said keeping them solvent over the next 75 years could cost $40 trillion.
“To do nothing sets in motion the most extreme and most burdensome entitlement changes of them all — massive benefit cuts and tax hikes that would need and, very simply, have to be imposed in order to fund these programs,” Josten said.
The campaign for entitlement reform comes as Washington remains at an impasse on a “grand bargain” to trim federal spending. While President Obama and senior White House aides have met with Republican lawmakers this year to discuss the budget, the gulf between the parties on taxes and spending remains wide.
Josten didn’t endorse a specific proposal to reform the safety net programs on Wednesday, instead citing public polling that shows Americans haven’t accepted that entitlements are in danger. It’s up to the Chamber and other groups, he said, to change that.
“What we hope to accomplish is simply to get the truth out,” Josten said.
The Chamber plans to launch a comprehensive communications campaign among its members to “rev up the call for reform,” according to Josten. Chamber officials will make speeches and media appearances across the country. The group will provide an online tool kit to arm supporters with materials to make the case in speeches, on social media and at town hall meetings.
The Chamber lobbyist appealed to the group’s board, saying, “We need you to be a voice in your own communities and your own organizations on the need to reform and strengthen entitlement programs. I know we can count on the board to help us in stepping up to the plate.”
The business group’s campaign is already drawing pushback from labor unions, which have fought vigorously against entitlement cuts.
“The Chamber says they want to have this debate out in the open. We say bring it on. We don’t believe that the American people really want to cut benefits for Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare in exchange for lowering the top tax rate for the richest Americans,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO, in a statement.
“If anything, we should be looking to strengthen and expand Social Security as the millennial generation has no job security and faces a very uncertain retirement, and traditional private pensions have eroded. The Chamber is in denial about the very real crisis created by their own corporate tax giveaways,” Lee said.
The Chamber campaign comes as Washington faces the need to lift the debt ceiling this fall. The last fight over the borrowing limit led to an all-consuming battle between Democrats and Republicans that ultimately resulted in the spending cuts from sequestration.
Throughout the fiscal debate, a “grand bargain” deal has proved elusive, in part because politicians from both parties fear making changes to entitlements will bring a backlash at the polls.
But in a response to a question from the crowd, Josten mentioned House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as someone who had taken a hard stand and been rewarded for it.
“Paul Ryan, by the way, is an exception to what you said because he did not get kneecapped,” Josten said, arguing Democrats’ use of his Medicare overhaul proposal as a campaign attack didn’t work last election.
After his speech, Josten said the plan to move the benefit programs to a “chained” consumer price index that will likely result in benefit cuts should be done. President Obama offered that proposal in his budget plan this year, but Josten said it’s not enough.
“The White House, as I said, rather than show a leg, showed an ankle,” Josten said. “I think it’s an important issue. I think it needs to be done. It doesn’t remotely come close to solving the problem.”
At the moment, Josten said both parties seem far apart on reaching a comprehensive budget deal.
“What we have right now are polarities of press conferences on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, and the only way to get to what you asked is for people to sit across from each other and started talking and negotiating. We are a ways from that right now,” Josten said.