Next up — Social Security

Well, here we go again. The Senate is scheduled to vote today on a financial bailout (oops, rescue) package. And if that goes well, the House Republicans get another crack at it Friday. This time around there are apparently enough tax cuts and other incentives in the package to give the members of Congress who are running for re-election some cover with the folks back home.

Crisis solved.

Well, no. Most likely not. But at least delayed until after the elections when things generally return to normal on Capitol Hill.

The bigger questions are these. How can the American public regain confidence and trust in elected leaders? And given the political maneuverings in recent days that stalled — maybe derailed — a clearly needed rescue plan, how are we ever going to solve the really big problems of Social Security and Medicare?

First, the trust and confidence issue. Those are keys to effective communication — and to gaining consensus on any issue. That true in business. If you don’t trust the company’s CEO — as an employee you are never going to believe that changes in your health-care premiums are necessary. Same in government.

Here’s from the latest online issue of Rasmussen Reports, which bills itself as an electronic publishing firm specializing in the collection, publication and distribution of public polling data. (Note: I came across this from a link via The Heritage Foundation website; The Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank in Washington.)

Just 26% of American adults have even a little bit of confidence that the nation’s policy makers know what they’re doing when it comes to the current problems on Wall Street.

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 67% of adults are not confident that lawmakers know what they’re doing (see crosstabs).

Unaffiliated voters are less confident than Republicans and Democrats, with just 21% who say they are confident that policy makers know what to do. Just 26% of Democrats and 31% of Republicans agree.

Well, one solution would be to vote the incumbents out of office — and give a new gaggle of legislators a crack at it. Since that won’t happen, why don’t we demand that elected officials in Washington tell us the truth about what they are going to do about Social Security and Medicare? Not generalities. But specifics. And not after the November elections. Now.

Here’s why — and it comes from The Heritage Foundation — “Preventing the Biggest Bailout of All.”

The bailout parade is continuing unabated in Washington this week. On the heels of a $25 billion bailout for the automotive industry the Bush Administration agreed yesterday to a $4.3 billion bailout of Massachusetts’ out of control health care spending. Apparently when numbers like $700 billion are being thrown around, numbers like $25 billion and $4 billion begin to sound like chump change. These “crises” all share one thing in common: they all could have been avoided if our politicians made relatively small but unpopular decisions today to avert disaster in the future. This failure is all too common among our current crop of leaders and it is sending our nation straight into a crisis 60 times larger than the proposed Wall Street bailout.

Imagine a taxpayer bailout even larger than what’s proposed for Wall Street. Now imagine it recurring every year in perpetuity. That’s our fiscal future unless we fundamentally reform Medicare and Social Security. Combined, these programs expose taxpayers to $41 trillion worth of unfunded obligations over the next 75 years. According to the Congressional Budget Office, absent fundamental reform of these entitlement programs we will have to either: A) double all tax rates; B) eliminate every other federal program, including defense and education; or C) run massive budget deficits that would eventually collapse the economy. Every year of delay raises the final cost of reform by trillions of dollars.

The financial world is watching. This January the international credit rating agency Moody’s said the United States is at risk of losing its top-notch triple-A credit rating. Moody’s lead analyst for the U.S., Steven Hess, told the Financial Times: “The combination of the medical programmes and social security is the most important threat to the triple-A rating over the long term. If no policy changes are made, in 10 years from now we would have to look very seriously at whether the U.S. is still a triple-A credit.”

That’s the same message that we heard from the “Fiscal Wake-up Tour” at the annual meeting of Corporate Voices for Working Families in Washington in early September.

Many — including George Bush — have raised the issue of the coming funding crisis with Social Security and Medicare. But nothing happens because of the political risks involved.

First step: got to restore trust and credibility on the part of elected officials. Maybe that process begins this Friday with a House vote on the financial plan. Regardless, it’s never going to happen unless elected leaders tell the truth about the problems facing all of us — and unless they begin to view solutions from the standpoint of what’s best for the nation and not just their own re-election.

Next step: we have to listen — and not immediately criticize and penalize those who raise tough issues and are willing to take the risk to propose solutions.

In public relations there’s something called two-way communications. And resolving conflicts by forging relationships built on honesty and trust. Gee, wonder how that really works?

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