"It was folly to grieve, or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure. There were buffoons, there were improvisatori, there were ballet-dancers, there were musicians, there was Beauty, there was wine. All these and security were within. Without was the 'Red Death.'" -- Edgar Allan Poe
No one can do macabre like Edgar Allan Poe, but this 112th Congress is giving the American short-story master a run for his money.
The White House and the Senate, led by Harry Reid, are engaged in a modern-day version of "The Masque of the Red Death" in stubbornly ignoring the entitlement time-bomb that almost assuredly will spell economic ruin for the country when it goes off.
In Poe's creation, 1,000 members of a land's nobility, led by Prince Prospero, sequester themselves in a palace in an effort to shut out all thoughts and realities of "the Red Death," a virulent plague ravaging their countrymen.
In President Barack Obama's and Reid's "Masque of the Red Ink," powerful Washington special interests are holed up in the hallways of Congress preaching willful ignorance of certain fiscal calamity so that they can keep the decades-long U.S. spending spree going.
The big difference between these two stories, of course, is that Poe's is fiction. The one in Washington is real, and it will result in severe hardship for generations of Americans to come.
"Unconscionable" is an overused word in American politics, but it fits the deeds of those lobbying against entitlement reform in Washington -- like the powerful AARP -- as snugly today as one of Prince Prospero's cloaks surely would have fit him. The AARP is squeezing Senate Democrats day and night during the "fiscal cliff" talks to block any changes in Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, and it seems to be winning.
These programs are inarguably bankrupting America's future as they are now structured, and everyone in Washington knows it; this day of reckoning has been expected for years. Yet the AARP and its elected confederates will not yield an inch. It's their mission to always ask for more for older Americans, never to accept less, or worry about younger taxpayers.
There was a chilling opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal Tuesday by former congressmen Chris Cox and Bill Archer, both of whom served on President Bill Clinton's Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform. In it, Cox and Archer outline the alarming scope of the nation's actual unfunded obligations.
We hear often about the country's $16 trillion debt load and trillion-dollar-plus annual operating deficits, but Cox and Archer remind us that they are just the tip of the iceberg: Our Medicare promises are underfunded by $42.8 trillion and our Social Security liability now stands at $20.5 trillion. Add in the unfunded pension costs for federal employees, and Americans are now $86.8 trillion in debt -- 550% of our current gross domestic product, write Cox and Archer. If we have to meet those costs by printing money, the dollar as we know it will become virtually worthless.
The White House and Senate Democrats point to House Republicans as the obstinate ones for fighting tax increases on wealthy Americans -- although Republicans have now put that on the table -- even though revenue from any tax increases would amount to "bailing out the Pacific Ocean with a teaspoon," as Cox and Archer put it. There simply isn't enough income in America to tax. Our unfunded liabilities are growing by about $8 trillion every year; ending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy would add only $82 billion in revenue to the Treasury per annum.
What House Republicans are willing to do is take the political hit for reforming the entitlements. That would include means testing for receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits -- which is really a sizable tax increase on wealthier Americans under another name. Republicans are also willing to take the blame for raising the retirement age for Social Security and reducing Medicare benefits. These are enormously popular programs, and no one wants to cut them, but there is a plague out yonder and only Republicans seem to see it.
Liberals in the Senate should take a clear look beyond the palace's walls, too, for it's their discretionary programs that will suffer most when the masks come off and it's revealed that we are all, in fact, withering from the same malady. The country is bleeding out with debt.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.