CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Back in 1996, President Bill Clinton reformed America's welfare system into mostly a get-a-job program -- outraging many fellow Democrats who felt that monthly welfare checks were crucial for survival of desperate families. Three officials of the Clinton administration quit in protest of this safety net curtailment.But welfare reform turned out to be a practical, sensible success that caused less suffering than liberals had feared. America's number of welfare recipients fell from 12.2 million in 1996 to 4.5 million in 2006. Sixty percent of mothers who left welfare found jobs. More than 20,000 businesses were induced to hire 1.1 million former welfare clients.Today, another Democratic "sacred cow" -- the entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- faces possible reform amid the "fiscal cliff" crisis. Again, progressive Democrats adamantly oppose any cuts in benefits.But we think it might be workable to curb some expense -- especially America's astronomical medical costs -- without harming millions of Americans.With the federal government floundering in trillion-dollar annual deficits, and the national debt skyrocketing past $16 trillion, the need for budget-balancing is imperative. The conservative Heritage Foundation says:"Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- along with other entitlements such as food stamps, unemployment and housing assistance -- make up 62 percent of all federal spending."
In contrast, it says, the military gets only 9 percent, interest on past borrowing takes 6 percent, education consumes 4 percent and foreign aid gets a mere 1 percent.To ease the burden on U.S. taxpayers, there's clearly more opportunity for savings in the gigantic entitlement sector than any other.President Obama has shown willingness to begin trimming that portion of the safety net. In "fiscal cliff" negotiating, he offered to cut hundreds of billions in Medicare spending over the next decade. This could be a wise course.It's outrageous that America spends vastly more on medical care than other advanced democracies do -- yet Americans have inferior health. Steps to reduce medical costs are just good sense. If other countries operate first-class health systems at less cost, America should be smart enough to do likewise.Particularly, more stringent safeguards could be imposed to prevent abuses such as needless, expensive medical procedures, or exploitation of benefits by ineligible people.Another huge saving, as we've said before, could be achieved by trimming the $1 trillion yearly U.S. military outlay.The federal government cannot continue overspending its income by $1 trillion per year. Debt reduction is absolutely essential. One way or another, the Washington showdown must be resolved.