JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to our continuing series of conversations about what's at stake in the battle over taxes, government spending and debt.
Last night, we heard from Republican Sen. Bob Corker. Tonight, we get a different perspective on the question of so-called entitlements.
Many lawmakers and economists have argued that it's essential to make big changes in Medicare and Social Security. Among those ideas are raising the eligibility age, means-testing for wealthy recipients, cuts in spending and benefits, and a bigger role for private competition in health care.
Max Richtman has been arguing against making many of these changes as part of this fight. He's the president of an advocacy group, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
And he joins us now.
MAX RICHTMAN, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare: Thank you for inviting me.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, first of all, why shouldn't Social Security and Medicare be part of the entire group of government spending programs that are being looked at to get -- to deal with the deficits?
MAX RICHTMAN: Well, before I answer that, I was very interested in the way you characterized these programs as entitlements, so-called, you said, entitlements.
And we think that a better term would be earned benefits.
You know, I counted the letters in the word entitlement. There are 11 letters. But often people refer to entitlement as a four-letter word. And it's a derogatory, derisive characterization.
These are earned benefits. People pay for them while they're working, Social Security, Part A Medicare, the hospital part, 25 percent of the premium for Part B. So they're -- I wish we would switch from entitlements to earned benefits, first of all.
But to answer your question, Social Security has not added a penny to the federal debt, to the deficits every year. It has a surplus. It has a surplus of $2.7 trillion.
So why are we in such a rush to change a program that has not -- doesn't have -- is not bankrupt, has a surplus, has 22 years of solvency before it does have a problem, a serious problem, and has not contributed to the federal debt?
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we can talk about these programs separately. We know that Social Security is considered to be in sounder shape than is Medicare, which is viewed as potentially running out of funds in the next few years, whereas Social Security, it's longer.
But let's take them one at a time. When it comes to Social Security, you have the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission saying that if you don't deal with these programs, you just can't be serious about getting your arms around this country's huge debt and deficit crisis.
MAX RICHTMAN: Well, I go back to where I started.
This program didn't add to the debt, hasn't contributed to the debt. We're not saying -- we're not a group that has our heads in the sand and is committed to never doing anything. Social Security is a dynamic program. It has changed over time. It will continue to change.
But let's look at Social Security for its own sake. You know, the last time Social Security was addressed by the Congress and the Reagan White House, it was to improve the solvency of Social Security, not to -- not as a scapegoat, not as a bargaining chip for problems that were not created by the program. That's where we're coming from.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're not saying don't address it at any time; you're saying, just don't address it now?
MAX RICHTMAN: I think it's a mistake -- excuse me -- it's a mistake to address it now.
It gets caught up in a debate that it shouldn't be part of. And we're going to solve Social Security and Medicare in the next two weeks? Please.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let's talk about Medicare again for a moment...
MAX RICHTMAN: OK.
JUDY WOODRUFF: ... the other large so-called entitlement program.
We heard -- we have heard a lot of conversation about raising the eligibility age. We know Americans are living longer. Why isn't that a reasonable solution? President Obama himself has said that's something that should be considered.
MAX RICHTMAN: Well, it's not true that -- as you know, not all Americans are living longer.
We might be able to do a program like this for a long time, but there are some jobs that are much harder to continue working and have health care benefits and have those available.
Raising the age for eligibility in Medicare would be particularly hard on communities of color. These are people, for the most part, they tend to have poorer health conditions at an earlier age. They have accumulated less wealth to pay for health care out of their pockets between, let's say 65 and 67 because of lower lifetime earnings, and they have shorter life spans.
So we don't need to do that. We don't need to look at reducing benefits, whether it's by raising the age for eligibility or means-testing the program or charging seniors more.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask you about means-testing, which would be a way of lowering benefits to those at a higher income level.
Last night, we interviewed Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. He said: I'm someone who has been successful in business. I have made a very good living. Why should I be getting benefits as large as someone who earns a lot less?
MAX RICHTMAN: Well, you know, Sen. Corker doesn't have to accept those benefits. I have talked to -- I hear that all the time: I don't need Social Security. I have my own resources.
Sometimes, the people that say that to me are getting Social Security. You don't get Social Security automatically. You have to go down to the office -- Social Security office and apply.
What I tell them, if you feel that strongly about it, you don't need it, there's a form -- it's on the Social Security Web site -- that you can fill out and you won't get your benefits.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying it could be done on an individual -- by individual basis?
MAX RICHTMAN: I think so.
I think changing Social Security from an earned benefit that you pay for while you're working into a means-tested program, let's be frank, that turns it into welfare. And welfare doesn't have a lot of support in this country.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Max Richtman, finally, what about this -- this -- frankly, this concept that these are programs that, yes, Americans have paid into them, but they -- every economist who's looked at them, virtually, talks about how they are not sustainable in the long term.
And that what has happened is by -- senior citizens, politically influential, have been able to stave off any trims in benefits or any changes, but that ultimately is going to be harmful to the next generation and the next generation...
MAX RICHTMAN: Right.
JUDY WOODRUFF: ...who are going to be expected to pay and to get benefits that just won't be there?
MAX RICHTMAN: Well, you know, as I said, our position isn't -- we're not saying stave these changes -- any changes off forever.
We're saying there are ways to improve -- improve Social Security. There are benefits that need to be improved for women, for people that -- communities of color. Those benefits need to be improved. Medicare, instead of looking at cutting benefits, charging seniors more for premiums, co-payments, deductibles, what about thinking about the gaps in Medicare?
It's a good program, but there's no coverage for hearing aids, hearing aid batteries, dental care, dentures. These are real needs for seniors. So, these programs can be adjusted by improving the efficiencies of the programs, by maybe bringing in some more revenue, not going back to the old mantra of let's cut, cut, cut.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you. And I know those are arguments you have been making all over Washington.
MAX RICHTMAN: I have.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Max Richtman, the president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, thank you very much.
MAX RICHTMAN: Thank you so much.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we are going to be having different perspectives in the coming days. And, online, we have a report from our partners at Kaiser Health News on how the fiscal cliff could affect health care for the military and for Medicare patients.