WHEN John Kennedy was president, Elvis was king, and the federal budget was still (occasionally) in balance, entitlements like Social Security were just a small part of government spending.
Today, Social Security, food stamps, and other ``mandatory'' spending take more than 61 cents of every federal dollar. By 2000, that will rise to 70 cents.
Two United States senators, John Danforth (R) of Missouri and Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska, say it's finally time to stop the runaway growth of entitlements. Otherwise, America's safety net for those in need could be in danger.
``We need to change,'' Senator Kerrey told a Monitor breakfast with reporters on Friday. ``And the sooner we change, the less painful it's going to be.''
Sens. Danforth and Kerrey, co-chairmen of President Clinton's new Commission on Entitlement Reform, know the commission's proposals could prompt voter protests.
The 32-member body will tackle what many consider the most explosive issue in this city: Making changes - including possible reductions - in Social Security, Medicare, food stamps, federal retirement, military pensions, and other entitlements whose costs are skyrocketing.
Despite the political dangers, Mr. Clinton vows to consider seriously any proposals that the commission makes, provided those proposals are bipartisan.
Kerrey says there's ``very little disagreement'' that the federal safety net that began with Social Security in 1935 is ``growing beyond our capacity to generate wealth and income.'' A potential crisis looms in 2010 when millions of Baby Boomers begin to retire.
Yet public opposition to cuts could be fierce. So Danforth says it ``is never going to be solved without presidential leadership.'' Clinton must be out front, but it's ``not reasonable'' to expect him to be there without both Republican and Democratic support, he says.
Clinton has requested the commission's recommendations by December 1994, so they can be incorporated into the 1996 federal budget. The commission has not yet begun to sort out solutions. But Kerrey says the options on some programs, like Social Security, are clearly limited.
For example, the commission could recommend holding down the annual cost-of-living adjustments. It could suggest boosting the retirement age, which is already being raised gradually to 67. Or it could recommend a means test for Social Security and Medicare, an option favored by former Sens. Paul Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and Warren Rudman (R) of New Hampshire.
Kerrey says what's really at risk is the nation's economy. Without reform, entitlement programs will eventually consume most of America's investment capital. Without investments, there won't be new jobs. Without new jobs, there will be no one to pay for all the entitlements.