By Andrew Beatty

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney laid out his vision for "simpler, smaller and smarter" government Friday, vowing to raise the retirement age and partly privatize US seniors' healthcare.

Unveiling his plan to trim the US deficit by $500 billion by 2016, Romney said he would also cut bureaucracy and change the constitution to make balanced budgets compulsory.

"I'm committed to making government simpler, smaller and smarter, it is not only good for the economy it is a moral imperative," the former management consultant told a gathering of conservative activists in Washington.

"For the next generation of retirees we should slowly raise the retirement age," Romney said without giving further details.

The normal retirement age in the United States currently is 65, and 67 for people born after 1959.

Romney also waded into the divisive issue of Medicare, advocating partial privatization of the highly popular system that provides health care to seniors and the disabled.

"Medicare should not change for anyone who is in the program or who is about to be in it, we should honor the commitments we have made to our seniors," he said.

But he added: "Tomorrow's seniors should have the freedom to choose what their health coverage looks like. Younger Americans today, when they turn 65 should have a choice between traditional Medicare and other private health care plans."

"Competition will lower costs and increase the quality of health care."

Romney, who leads Republican polls in some states, but elsewhere is lagging behind conservative favorite Herman Cain, also rattled off a series of cuts long relished by the right.

The former Massachusetts governor threw his weight behind calls to cut and merge government departments responsible for trade, insisting "we have got to cut the size of the federal workforce."

That included merging the US Trade Representative's office, the Commerce Department, the International Trade Commission and other trade bodies, although he did not say which would disappear.

"Too many chefs not only spoil the broth, they make it inedible and prohibitively expensive," he said.

Despite a largely tepid reception from the audience, Romney earned cheers for promising to repeal President Barack Obama's health care reforms, a measure Romney claims would save $95 billion in 2016.

Romney earlier promised to cut government posts, slash funding for the arts, public broadcasting, family planning and passenger rail services, while giving states more budget power and launching a "stem-to-stern" review of government departments.

The plan was given short shrift by Democrats, who accused Romney of trying to privatize Medicare.

"The fundamental challenge of our time is how we rebuild our economy so that hard work and responsibility are rewarded and that economic security is restored for the middle class," said Ben LaBolt a spokesman for Obama's reelection campaign.

"Mitt Romney's proposal takes us in exactly the opposite direction: it places a great burden on the middle class and the elderly, and instead of asking all Americans to do their fair share it continues to offer special breaks for large corporations, millionaires and billionaires."

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

Photo by Gage Skidmore from Flickr.