Hutchinson latest in GOP field to stake position on candidate-dividing entitlement reform

Staking a position on entitlement reform is a careful proposition for a candidate, with the issue frequently being called the "third rail of politics."

Published: July 23, 2023 11:13pm

Updated: July 25, 2023 12:13pm

Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson says if elected president he will look at "long-term fixes" to keep Medicare and Social Security from going broke – becoming one of the latest in the GOP presidential field to stake out his position on the divisive issue of entitlement reform.  

Both programs face tens of trillions of future promised benefits known as "unfunded liabilities." 

Hutchinson more specifically wants to create a commission to study the matter, which he said earlier this month in Washington, D.C. is "very similar to what President Reagan did in 1982 with [economist] Alan Greenspan that sustained the life of Social Security and Medicare for decades."  

According to the Senate Budget Committee, the Office of the Actuary for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has "calculated that the unfunded obligations for Medicare now will total $38 trillion over the next 75 years."

The committee also noted that Social Security Trustees have projected that the unfunded obligations for Social Security "will total $7 trillion over the next 75 years."

Medicare's hospital insurance trust fund will be depleted by 2031, according to the latest trustees report. The trustees reported that the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which funds Social Security benefits, "will be able to pay 100 percent of total scheduled benefits until 2033."

In July 2022, former Wyoming GOP Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chair of the 2010 National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, warned both parties about delaying entitlement reform.

"The Social Security system cannot sustain itself and will drop down 23%, and the Medicare Trust Fund will begin to take some heavy hits in 2026," he said. "And you won't find anybody of either party talking about it because it's very hazardous."

The issue came into full view when GOP lawmakers and the White House faced off over how to address the ballooning federal debt, agreeing to a plan in June that raised the debt ceiling and placed limits of future domestic federal spending. 

President Biden set the negotiation stage by taking Social Security and Medicare off the table, then targeting a plan by Florida GOP Sen. Rick Scott of Florida that called for the sunset of all federal legislation after five years unless Congress acts. Scott since revised the plan to exclude the two programs, according to CBS News

Also, as debt ceiling negotiations were in the early stages, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Republicans would not touch Social Security and Medicare.

Now, among the 2024 GOP presidential candidates, front-runner former President Trump has already attacked the past positions of his closest rival – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

In several Truth Social posts, he claims DeSantis wants to cut Social Security and Medicare, posting in one: "HE IS A WHEELCHAIR OVER THE CLIFF KIND OF GUY, JUST LIKE HIS HERO, failed politician Paul Ryan."

DeSantis previously voted for budget proposals as a member of Congress in 2013, 2014 and 2015 that would raise the retirement age for Social Security and establish a bipartisan commission to look at any further reforms to the program. 

Still, Trump has more recently said he and others have to put Social Security and Medicare "on the table in the long term."

Former Vice President Mike Pence in kicking off his campaign in Iowa last month said that if growing entitlement program costs are not addressed, it could “crush the future of the American economy and opportunities for our children.” And he declined to rule out raising the retirement age for eligibility, according to Yahoo News.

Another candidate, former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, has also signaled support for reform.

"Should we reform those entitlements? Yes, but should we take anything from people who have already been promised? No," Haley told NBC News in an interview soon after announcing her candidacy in February. 

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