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Means Testing May Be Coburn’s Next Big Fight

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Sen. Tom Coburn is hoping a report detailing aid received by millionaires will lead to means testing for social safety net benefits.

After a successful campaign of shaming Congress to take a break from earmarks, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has turned his focus to aid received by millionaires, and he hopes it will lead to means testing for Social Security and Medicare.

"It is a new way to make the case for means testing, not just for Social Security but [also] Medicare," said an aide in Coburn's office. "This isn't class warfare. It's classy warfare."

Indeed, Coburn is using much the same strategy he used to go after "pork-barrel spending": reports with catchy names and seemingly outrageous examples of government waste. This time it's "Subsidies of the Rich and Famous," which highlights the whopping $9 billion in retirement payments people who make more than $1 million a year get from the federal government.

In a floor speech Tuesday, Coburn turned serious in comparing the U.S. Social Security system to Canada's.

"Why is Canada's Social Security system not in trouble?" Coburn asked. "Because Canada looks at how much you are making each year, and at certain levels, you get half of your Social Security, because you obviously don't need it because your income is up there, and at a certain other level, you get none of it."

"Yet we've gone completely the other way," Coburn continued.

On Medicare, which helps provide health care to the elderly, Coburn said the wealthy should be shouldering a greater share of the burden. Currently program recipients pay 25 percent of the total cost, down from 50 percent when the program was first launched.

Coburn said that overall he still supports reforming the tax code in order to lower rates to boost economic growth, but "one of the first steps in doing that [should be] to make sure our tax code and social safety net programs are for those that need it, not for those that don't."

The idea of the report is to force "the debate the American people want us to have instead of pandering to random lobbyists and interest groups," the Coburn aide said. "You have to tip everyone's sacred cows and highlight idiotic giveaways to the rich and famous across the board if we are going to win the argument on means testing."

The report also appears to echo a Democratic talking point that the wealthy are treated more favorably by the tax code than others. But while Democrats want to raise taxes on upper income earners to help fund initiatives to stimulate the economy, Coburn wants to lower taxes.

Coburn's shift in focus to means testing for entitlement programs is significant because the report follows his successful campaign to end earmarks.

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