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Roll Call

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.

He and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), year after year, would put out "pork" reports listing often in a humorous way directed spending that lawmakers would get into appropriations bills.

After the GOP won control of the House in last year's elections, Senate Democratic leaders and reluctant Republican appropriators who supported earmarks as part of their mandate under the Constitution to oversee spending agreed to a two-year moratorium on earmarks.

The report also comes after Coburn, who is well-respected in conservative circles, this year took on anti-tax pundit Grover Norquist over what counts as a tax increase.

Norquist has made a name for himself by getting lawmakers to sign a pledge that they will not support tax increases. But Coburn challenged Norquist over the "gang of six" proposal to cut $4 trillion from the deficit over 10 years. The package included repealing tax code subsidies, which Norquist argued would be tantamount to tax increases.

Coburn's report on subsidies for the wealthy also lists about $30 billion in tax breaks that millionaires benefit from annually, including some such as the mortgage interest deduction and the child care tax credit, that also apply to lower-income brackets.

But by bringing up the issue of means testing during Congress' efforts to get the deficit under control, Coburn may be hoping for results similar to his earmark fight. And while Democrats have traditionally opposed means testing as a slippery slope to eliminating entitlement programs, liberals and moderates said Tuesday they would not reject the idea outright.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said that means testing for Social Security and Medicare is something that should be explored.

"I think there is a fair way we can do that," Lautenberg said, adding that the wealthy "should do something extra" in these tough economic times.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she would not rule out means testing, but the details would determine what she could support. She added that she was heartened that Coburn is concerned with the "income gap in this country and I would hope it would be reflected in what he supports in terms of tax policy for millionaires."

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) was circumspect about the matter, but he insisted everything should be considered to help get the nation on a better fiscal footing.

"Means testing benefits would not be one of the first things I would look at, or even the second or third thing. But in general, in talking about the budget and our deficits, I have continued to insist that everything should be on the table so I won't categorically rule it out," Coons said.

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